Following a goalless draw in the first leg of their CAF Champions League semi-final away to Orlando Pirates in South Africa, every Esperance player and supporter is hoping for their side to capitalise upon that result and seal a place in the final.
For Oussama Darragi losing is simply not an option. The Blood and Gold midfielder is desperate to triumph in the competition and right certain wrongs that have punctuated a career lined with both great promise and disappointment. In the player’s mind at least, the most important of these is Esperance’s battle to atone for their defeat in the 2012 Champions League final when they relinquished their continental crown to Al Ahly.
Following the Egyptian side’s 1-1 away draw against Cameroon’s Coton Sport in the competition’s other semi-final first leg, this year’s final could see the same two sides as last year competing for the title.
“It’s the match everyone’s waiting for,” Darragi says in interview with FIFA.com. “We’re used to facing them now, whether it’s in the group stage, semi-final or final. If we end up playing them again this year, it means another final appearance and we’re ready to rise to the challenge and get revenge.”
This potential final would signify a clash between the competition’s two most consistent sides. “[These matches] are a bit of a clasico between the club with the most continental titles and Esperance, who have broken all the records in Africa,” adds the playmaker, referring to Al Ahly’s seven wins in the competition - five of which came in the 2000s - and his own side’s six final appearances which have seen them twice crowned champions. He continues: “We’re approaching this semi-final with a sense of calm. It’s our fourth in a row and this vast experience, along with our strong individuals, is a real strength.”
Sobering European experience
While Esperance have been involved in the previous three finals, Darragi himself played no part in their 2012 run, having been seduced by the attractions of European football.
Nicknamed Picasso for his artistry on the ball, as well as Darraginho in homage to his idol Ronaldinho – a playmaker Darragi tries to emulate and a man he rates as the best number ten to have played the game – the Tunisia international’s exceptional performances during the 2011 season saw him courted by clubs including Barcelona, Inter Milan and Marseille. However, having just sealed a magnificent treble with his club - winning the league, domestic cup and Champions League - Darragi decided to postpone his big move to Europe in order to compete in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup where Esperance lost both of their matches.
[These matches] are a bit of a clasico between the club with the most continental titles and Esperance, who have broken all the records in Africa.
A few months later, in February 2012, the move finally materialised - though not in as dramatic a fashion as expected - as Darragi joined Swiss side FC Sion, an ambitious club hampered by perpetual managerial changes among other problems. Clearly disappointed by the transfer, a philosophical Darragi admits: “It was certainly a failure in terms of the amount of football I played. Unfortunately there was no stability at the club and the way it was managed left plenty to be desired. But while my time there didn’t last very long, I learned plenty from European football as it’s completely different to African football. I discovered a new way of defending, improved my positional sense and experienced a brand of football focused on collective effort over individualism.”
Since returning to Esperance in the summer of 2013 Darragi has been intent on setting things right: “Yes, I guess I made a poor choice and I accept responsibility for that, but we can only learn from these experiences.”
“Right now I'm focused on my performances with Esperance and hopefully I’ll be able to try my luck in Europe again with a more attacking team in a classier league,” Darragi concludes before revealing his dreams of both a move to Spain and being a huge fan of Diego Simeone’s coaching style at Atletico Madrid.
For the time being, however, it is Esperance who continue to benefit from his skill and vision. While undoubtedly delighted by his return to the club, however, Darragi knows that he still has people to win over in Tunisia and is looking to repay a debt owed to the supporters who idolised him and resented his decision to leave.
“Certain things happened that made me want to leave. I didn't get on very well with [the then] coach Nabil Maaloul or some of the players,” Picasso continues. “That left me feeling uncomfortable and I wanted to move on at all costs. When I returned, the supporters understood why I’d left and have supported me as we look to achieve our common goals.”
Key among these aspirations is conquering the Champions League this coming November as Esperance aim to recreate the joy of two years ago. But is this 2013 side superior to its predecessor? “When I left Esperance, it was a team that had developed over several years,” Darragi says. “Our strengths were our instinctual play and solidarity. Personally, I think that the 2010 and 2011 Esperance team was more solid. But the squad has developed this year, and with more games under our belts we’ll definitely rediscover that same understanding and become even stronger.”
Ultimately, this extra strength is exactly what is needed for Darragi and Esperance to seal their victory in the Champions League. The accompanying place at the FIFA Club World Cup it offers would provide the perfect opportunity for Darragi to right one final wrong.