As unexpected as this may seem, Etoile Sportive du Sahel will be going into Sunday's match for third place at Japan 2007 with a sense of regret. Despite losing in the semi-final to Argentinian powers Boca Juniors, the African champions can feel proud of their performance. They were solid in defence and played plenty of stylish one-touch football, much to the appreciation of the crowd at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
"I think this was the best my team has ever played," said Bertrand Marchand after the match. "We were lacking a bit of experience and we didn't have the talent that they had. We're not as ruthless as a team like Boca, and it's the little things like that which decide the result..."
An early injury (with Muri Ola Ogunbiyi having to go off after 10 minutes), a goal conceded at the worst possible moment, the odd 50-50 call that did not go in their favour, a few shots that were mere inches wide of the target, a little bit of panic setting in... These indeed were the little things which decided the result and are what Sahel will have to work on if they are to make it into the elite of world football.
"You can't really feel too disappointed tonight though," said captain Saif Ghezal to FIFA.com. "We weren't just drawn against anyone, this was Boca Juniors we were playing. I'm frustrated about the fact that we let a goal in at a time when we were on top. You lose concentration for a few seconds and the damage is done. That's what happens at the top."
After Neri Cardozo had opened the scoring, Sahel were under the cosh for a few minutes before beginning the push for an equaliser. For a while, it was Amine Chermiti, Ghezal, Afouan Gharbi and Gilson Silva who were making all the play while world-class talents such as Rodrigo Palacio, Martin Palermo and Sebastian Battaglia were on the back foot. Though the goal never came, Sahel's performance is grounds for optimism ahead of Sunday's third-place match.
"We really want to finish third. And I think that we
deserve it. We'll have to play to our full potential, but we
proved tonight that we can be more than a match for any
opponents," said Sabeur Frej. "We don't want to be
thinking of what might have been once we fly home from Japan,"
"We gave it our best shot against Boca, and we really want to finish in the top three," he added. "If we end up with two wins from our three matches, it will be a real source of pride, for Tunisia and for the whole continent."
Few would have thought before the competition began that the African champions would have been on the same level as the world's best teams. Judging by the disappointment on the Pachuca players faces after they lost their quarter-final to Sahel and the relief shown by Boca when the final whistle blew in the semi, the Tunisians are very much the surprise package.
Etoile's French coach is aware of their reputation, or lack thereof, which is why the match for third place is such an important one. "It's quite an achievement for us to be in a third-place play-off," said Marchand, "but we've proved that African club football is in good shape. This is why we came here. Now we've got to keep it up for another 90 minutes. I'm sure that it will be a matter of honour for my players to go out and secure third place."