Maaloul plotting perfect farewell
© AFP

While he may not have spent his entire career at Esperance Sportive Tunis, Nabil Maaloul has enjoyed nothing short of a love affair with the club for the past 30 years. Hailing from the Tunisian capital himself, he took his first steps as a professional with Les Sang et Or (Blood and Gold) in 1981, and together they went on to win every title going, from the Tunisian championship and Tunisian Cup to the Arab Champions League. He now looks set to end his coaching career at the club this year and will bow out having left a league and cup double as a parting gift – and may be about to top all those triumphs.

Maaloul and the Taraji can add a third trophy to their impressive haul this season when they face Wydad Casablanca in the CAF Champions League final, which gets underway with the first leg in Morocco on Sunday. If they emerge triumphant following the decisive leg a week later, the Tunisian outfit will then get the chance to compete for a fourth honour this term: the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011.

“Taking part in that Club World Cup would be the crowning glory for me,” Maaloul told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “But we have to take one thing at a time. The priority for us right now is the Champions League final, and to win the treble would be historic for me and the club. It’d be wonderful to achieve that for the fans and the officials at Esperance. The whole of Tunis is buzzing ahead of this final and, given our previous games and the form of my players, I’m confident. Our morale couldn’t be better.”

Worthy opponents
It is easy to understand why. As well as getting their hands on the Tunisian Cup, Maaloul’s side lost just two games during the 2010/11 domestic season as they claimed the league crown in comprehensive fashion. Driven forward by sparkling duo Oussama Darragi and Youssef Msakni, EST have also shone on the continental stage, sweeping aside everyone on their route to the final except one team – Wydad.

“They’re a club we obviously know well, because we were in Group B with them earlier in the Champions League,” explained Maaloul. “They’re the only team we weren’t able to beat, having shared the points with them both away [a 2-2 draw in Casablanca] and at home [0-0 in Tunis]. We’re expecting two difficult matches which will probably come down to the mental side of the game. I’ll try to work on that aspect with my players; the idea is not to heap too much pressure on their shoulders.”

The whole of Tunis is buzzing ahead of this final and, given our previous games and the form of my players, I’m confident.
Nabil Maaloul, Esperance coach.

The 49-year-old speaks from experience, having enjoyed his fair share of important games down the years. Most notably, he was assistant to Roger Lemerre when Tunisia won their only CAF African Cup of Nations title in 2004, but he feels knowledge can spring from a variety of sources. “All my experiences have been crucial,” he stressed. “I’d put that 2004 win on the same rung as my jobs at club level or on television. As a pundit, I’ve been able to rub shoulders with coaches like Luis Aragones, Marcello Lippi, Arrigo Sacchi and Arsene Wenger. I think I’ve learned more from them than I have from anyone else.”

Perfect ending
Those lessons clearly seem to have done the trick as Maaloul’s side are solid, well-balanced and used to winning. While the likes of Mejdi Traoui and Khaled Korbi weigh in with experience and maturity, Cameroonian forward Joseph Yannick N'Djeng and his fellow youngsters add zip and verve.

“We have a good attacking approach and a number of players who can make the difference at any given moment,” added Maaloul. “Our defensive organisation is good too. Above all, I’m keen to ensure it’s the work of the whole team. Our defence starts with our first forward.”

Back at the club since December last year, the man who holds Esperance close to his heart has already won over the fans who frowned upon his spell with arch-rivals Club Africain between 1995 and 1997. To guide Les Sang et Or to Champions League glory would be the icing on the cake, and the perfect way to end his passionate association with the side.

“I’m not going to be a coach for much longer,” he said. “I think this is my last season with Esperance. Sure, we’ve already won some trophies this season, Esperance are playing well and getting better from match to match and with every passing month, but to keep going to training after such a long playing career is a bit tough on the nerves these days.” Judging from his broad grin, it is safe to say Maaloul will enjoy putting his players through their paces a few more times yet.