Although Tunisia have maintained an admirable presence on the international stage, the Carthage Eagles have suffered a downturn in fortune of late. After reaching three FIFA World Cups™ consecutively from 1998, the Tunisians failed to qualify for the in 2010. In that time, they have also slumped in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, failing to breach the top 40 nations since September 2007 and hitting an all-time low of 65th in the month of the 2010 Final. But, following up on a solid CAF Africa Cup of Nations campaign earlier this year, Tunisia started their Brazil 2014 preliminaries well and have scrambled back up ten places to be ranked 46th in the world.
The failure to reach South Africa 2010 was particularly painful for the Eagles, who led Nigeria from the start of their closing group only to falter to Mozambique on the final matchday. A 1-0 defeat in Maputo signalled the end of coach Humberto Coelho's era, and it also ushered in a rather unexpected period of instability – both on and off the pitch. A revolution at the end of 2010 put football on the back-burner, and short tenures for coaches Faouzi Benzarti and Bertrand Marchand did little to settle the national team. In March of 2011, in stepped popular former international, Sami Trabelsi, who has brought some solidity and form back to the side.
The France 1998 veteran first ushered his domestic-based players to glory at the 2011 African Championship of Nations, which helped form an important base of players, who then went on to salvage a place in the 2012 Cup of Nations after a poor start. A quarter-final loss after extra time to Ghana in the finals was seen as a fair and welcome achievement, but it’s been clear that Trabelsi is building his team with a focus on making a run at Brazil 2014. “We have focus on reaching the 2013 [Cup of Nations] of course, but especially the 2014 World Cup,” said the coach. “Tunisia did not participate in 2010, which was a trauma for our fans.”
Trabelsi is correct that it is a busy time for Tunisia, but no matter what happens in continental qualifying and the next Cup of Nations in January 2013, the side will have a head-start when qualifying for the next FIFA World Cup continues in March. In fact, they were one of just two nations, including Egypt, to win their first two Brazil 2014 qualifying matches in Africa’s group stage. At the start of this month, they went behind to Equatorial Guinea at home before Trabelsi’s half-time talk inspired a three-goal second half fight-back. A week later, they won in Cape Verde Islands, and those six points leave them two ahead of Sierra Leone. A win in that contest would see them with at least a five-point lead over their closest Group B rivals half-way through the stage.
A solid core remains
Ranked seventh in Africa – sandwiched between new African kings Zambia and seven-time continental champions Egypt – Tunisia are always in the upper-echelon due to their organisation, league strength and the quality of talent that keeps their best players surfacing in Europe’s top leagues. There is currently an admirable attacking force developing under Trabelsi, who was himself a defender.
Issam Jemaa is still vital for the team, and though he has failed to find a consistent home in France, he did score his 30th international goal against Cape Verde. Another promising, France-based attacker to find the net against the Sharks was Saber Khelifa, while Sami Allagui has been making waves with Mainz in Germany and Youssef Msakni has earned the title of Africa’s most coveted youngster after a pair of prolific seasons with African champions Esperance of Tunis.
At the back, Ammar Jemal typically joins with veteran Anis Bousaidi to keep things tight in defence, and Aymen Mathlouthi is one of Africa’s top rated netminders. Trabelsi takes pains to stress that his team is a unit.
“We do not have stars like some other African sides. Our strength is the collective,” he said recently. Jemaa summed up the team’s optimistic mood, saying: “Our preliminary group seems open, and I really believe we have a chance to qualify.”