Although exceptional performances for a high-profile club is the usual route to becoming a first-choice international, it is by no means the only way. Some players generate significant respect among coaches and colleagues simply by their winning mentality and willingness to put the team first.

Tunisia and Lens defender Alaeddine Yahia is a good example of this phenomenon, as proven by events this season for his club in Ligue 1. After a poor start to the current campaign which saw them lose six of their first nine games, Les Sang et Or have come to life in the last few weeks, registering two victories and three draws from five matches.

“It’s when you’ve got your backs to the wall that you learn about the true character of men,” explained Yahia in an exclusive interview for Exhibiting refreshing candour, he added, “Somewhere along the way, we’d stopped putting in the required work and effort. We had to get back to basics.”

And this is a road that the Parisian centre-back has been down before, during a career that has taken a somewhat meandering path. While some of the problems Yahia has encountered along the way have been self-inflicted, he has always tried to learn from his mistakes and to assume responsibility for his decisions, such as the one that led to a near two-year exclusion from the national team.

“I’m as responsible as anyone for what happened then,” he admitted. “I wasn’t playing well and I’d also had a long-term knee injury. Then, a couple of years back, there was a friendly match with France in Paris. I’m Tunisian, but also French – I was born in a suburb of Paris. I had trouble accepting not playing any part in that game. So I went to see the coach at the time, Humberto Coelho, and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back.”

“Being asked to defend the national jersey has always filled me with huge pride, even more so today than when I was younger,” he continued. “It pains me to think about that gap in my football career, there’s no denying it. But I made a choice and followed it through. I gave everything that I had at club level, which helped me to become the player I am today.”

I can see light at the end of the tunnel – there are some very talented young players in the national team now.

Brought back into the Tunisian fold in July of this year, Yahia has rapidly proved his worth to the country’s new national coach, Bertrand Marchand.

For several years now, Les Aigles de Carthage have struggled to attain the heights to which their supporters were previously accustomed. After losing all of their matches at the CAF African Cup of Nations in January and then missing out on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ by one point on the final day of qualifying, what the 2004 African champions needed most was a seasoned coach who was capable of steadying the ship.

“Bertrand Marchand has a ton of experience – let’s not forget that he was the first French coach to win the African Champions League, with Etoile Sportive du Sahel in 2007. We’re putting things right at every level,” said Yahia.

Consistently positive results on the pitch have not come as quickly as hoped, however. While the North Africans pulled off an impressive 2-1 win away to Togo last month, their qualification campaign for the 2012 African Cup of Nations had already suffered a serious setback over the summer, as they went down 1-0 to Botswana at home.

On that point, Yahia was quick to defend his team-mates: “I don’t want to take anything away from the Botswana players’ performance. They played really well; they fought for each other and did the simple things well. But we shouldn’t forget that the match took place at the beginning of July, right in the middle of the World Cup. Most of our players were either still on holiday or had just got back in training, so those that were selected – from the Tunisian League only – did what they could.”

“That said, allowing a ten-man Malawi side to draw 2-2 in Tunis, after we led 2-0 after half an hour, is not something we would ever want to repeat,” the former Saint-Etienne centre-half pointed out.

Despite these disappointments, the Tunisians sit second in a tight Group K after four games, three points behind Botswana, a team they face once again this week in a fixture that promises to be hotly contested. “We’re very wary of them, and the potential trap that this match represents,” he said.

Yahia, whose career has seen him wear the colours of Guingamp, Sedan and Nice, among others, remains hopeful ahead of the crucial clash, aware that his experience is invaluable in games such as these.

“The last two years have been very difficult. Since Roger Lemerre left in 2008, Tunisian football has been terribly unstable, and in sport that’s never a good thing,” he said.

Concluding on a positive note, he added, “But I can see light at the end of the tunnel – there are some very talented young players in the national team now. I know I’m not the only one who would remind them that talent alone is usually not sufficient. You need to work as hard as you can in order to achieve your goals.”