At a time of momentous political and social upheaval in Tunisia, the national team created some history of their own by storming to victory in last month’s CAF African Nations Championship (CHAN) in Sudan.
“We wanted to hoist the national flag high over the rest of Africa,” said the Carthage Eagles’ playmaker Zouhaier Dhaouadi, who was named the player of a tournament open only to locally-based players.
The Club Africain man was ably supported by his team-mates, among them Adel Chedli, the only player to have won the continent’s two most prestigious national team tournaments (the CAF Africa Cup of Nations being the other), and Mejdi Traoui, the scorer of their opening goal in the 3-0 defeat of Angola in the final. FIFA.com caught up with the trio to discuss their starring roles in a memorable few days for Tunisian football.
“We wanted to push ourselves all the way to victory and it was that desire that made all the difference,” explained Traoui, a tireless midfield ball-winner who plays his club football for Esperance. “We were motivated by what was going on back home and we wanted to reach for the sky. It lifted us.”
We have given our people a wonderful gift. It was a kind of moral obligation for us and I am delighted we pulled it off.
“We had a winning mentality and that allowed us to excel ourselves and push ourselves to the limit and beyond,” added the 23-year-old Dhaouadi, who seems destined for stardom. “Our preparations were all a bit of a rush and without that burning desire we wouldn’t have won.”
Overcoming the odds
What made the Tunisians’ triumph all the more remarkable was the fact that they had not been able to train since the start of the year, due to the political turmoil engulfing the country.
“We didn’t have the best conditions to work in during the build-up to the tournament,” recalled Chedli. “I’d been on holiday in France for three weeks when I was called up, and only got to meet my team-mates when we played our opening game against Angola.”
The goalless draw that followed suggested the Tunisians’ lack of preparation would be too big a drawback for them to overcome. “We felt a bit frustrated after the first game with Angola because we wanted to start with a win,” said Dhaouadi. “But then we all vowed not to make the same mistakes and to get better and stronger.”
Chedli was even more damning of their performance against the Black Antelopes: “We were awful against Angola. We lost our bearings completely. But after that we got down to business and showed some desire, some heart.”
The turnaround was instant. Victories over Rwanda and Senegal followed, with the Tunisians taking their place in the last eight of the competition. “After the Senegal match we started to believe we could do it,” said Dhaouadi. “Something just clicked, and we told ourselves we could go all the way and that we had the makings of champions.”
Blocking their path to the semis were none other than defending champions Congo DR, the inaugural winners of the competition. And it took a moment of magic from Dhaoudi to see off the Congelese challenge, the mercurial midfielder collecting the ball on the right and slicing his way through the Leopards’ defence, before curling an exquisite left-foot shot into the top corner for the only goal of the game. In the last four, the Tunisians came up against neighbours Algeria, winning through on penalties after a tight match had finished 1-1.
Waiting for them in the final were the Angolans once more, though this time there would be little doubt about the result, goals from Traoui, Slama Kasdaoui and Oussama Darragi giving the north Africans a second continental crown to go with their Cup of Nations 2004 triumph.
Traoui described his all-important opening goal: “It gave us the lead and a valuable psychological boost. We were filled with confidence and could see the African title right in front of us. It’s the most important win of my career.”
“I can’t choose between these two titles,” added Chedli, a veteran of that 2004 triumph on home soil. “They’re just as important as each other. We won the first one in front of our own fans and it was our maiden title as well. But this one, with everything that’s been going on at home, is just as wonderful. It must have given the Tunisian people a lot of happiness, a lot of joy.”
“We have given our people a wonderful gift,” said Traoui in agreement. “It was a kind of moral obligation for us and I am delighted we pulled it off.”
Tunisia’s Sudanese surprise augurs well for the future, as Traoui, having the last word, pointed out: “We’ve now got a very solid and talented team, and that’s exciting. Those qualities were what made the difference in Sudan, and if we can keep showing the same will to win, then I think we can safely say that Tunisia are well and truly back.”