Jemaa: This time I want to go all the way
© AFP

When the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013 gets underway this Saturday it will be the fifth time Tunisia’s Issam Jemaa has participated in the pan-African tournament. With the chance to win the continental title for his national team and the opportunity to qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup at stake, the 28-year-old striker is determined to put everything on the line.

The Gabes-born international has seen many ups and downs in his career. Starting out with Tunisian super-club Esperance ST, Jemaa then moved to France, where he played for no less than four different sides in seven years before finally settling down in the Gulf at Al Kuwait SC, whom he led to glory at last year’s AFC Cup. With that success under his belt, the battle-hardened forward is hoping to captain his national team in their quest to become Africa’s best.

A dazzling start
After just two years with Esperance ST, a young Issam Jemaa was selected by national coach Roger Lemerre as a member of the Tunisian squad at the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup. In Tunisia’s third and final game against Australia, Jemaa came on as substitute and his international career was launched.

Jemaa told FIFA.com about his memories of that day: “I’d joined up with the team shortly after they won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time. Coach Lemerre had a lot of faith in me and shortly after moving to Lens in France, I was getting a chance to play. I benefitted a lot from the Confederations Cup.”

The conversation moved to his time playing for French sides for Lens, Caen, Auxerre and Brest and the striker was similarly effusive: “I’ve got wonderful memories of my time in France, especially with Lens where I had a great time at a big club.”

“That club gave me so much,” he went on, “and I learned a lot. I met a lot of people who really helped me, particularly the club’s president Gervais Martel. My time with Lens gave me my best memories of the country.”

Disappointments along the way
Even though he came on leaps and bounds in France, it was also the scene of his greatest disappointment. An injury in a domestic game ruled him out of contention for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, and his subsequent dream of making up for that loss by playing at South Africa 2010 was shattered by a qualifying goal from Mozambique’s Dario Monteiro.

“In 2006,” Jemaa explained, “I was injured just a week before the first game of the World Cup and that really affected me at the time. I tried to see the positive side, though, and made myself work as hard as I could to get another chance.”

Mozambique, however, had other ideas, beating Tunisia in their final qualifying match for South Africa 2010 and breaking a certain striker’s heart: “I don’t know what to tell you!” Jemaa said ruefully. “We hadn’t lost a game up until that point and we were on our way through until the 83rd minute. We just dropped too deep, put ourselves under pressure, and then conceded a goal which knocked us out.”

We have to keep playing to the same standard to qualify for the final round and ensure the odds are stacked in our favour.
Issam Jemaa on qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil

Despite these setbacks, the well-travelled Jemaa prefers to look forward to an exciting future. Tunisia have made a strong start to their Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign, winning their two Group B matches, with Jemaa contributing a goal in each game. The striker, who also scored in the qualifiers for Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, is cautious but confident.

“We’re not in an easy group,” he said. “We’ve played two games and are doing well at the top of the table. Now we have to keep playing to the same standard to qualify for the final round and ensure the odds are stacked in our favour.”

Continental dream
Tunisia’s current coach Sami Trabelsi has assembled a highly experienced squad for his nation’s bid at continental supremacy. Jemaa has played in four previous editions of the tournament and this year he hopes to bring home the title for the first time, and the second in the nation's history.

“I first took part in the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006,” he recalled, “and I’ve some amazing memories of the competition even though I was on the fringes of the side back then. The competition has its own special flavour, and I hope I can put on a great performance in South Africa.”

But the Carthage Eagles have no easy task ahead. Placed in Group D alongside the likes of Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, the Tunisians’ first game is sure to be a fiery encounter against next-door neighbours Algeria on Tuesday. For Jemaa and his teammates the North African derby is a must-win encounter: “If we want to get off to a good start we have to win the first game.”

“Victory against Algeria will give us a big confidence boost,” he went on. “All the matches in this group will be equally difficult and the odds are pretty much even. I hope we will be fully mentally and physically focused and see our challenge through to the end.”

Mental and physical preparation are important, but Issam Jemaa has another string to his bow, namely the experience of a striker who has played in the continent’s biggest tournament four times before. When he runs out on the pitch next week, Jemaa will be looking to give his all in hope of lifting the trophy on February 10.