Tunisia find reasons to believe
Their energy sapped by two important Germany 2006 qualifying matches contested in early June, Tunisia ended up exiting the FIFA Confederations Cup 2005 in the first round.
Drawn in a group containing Argentina, Germany and Australia, Roger Lemerre's men nevertheless succeeded in leaving the spectators in Germany with good memories. Their tournament over, they now have but one objective in mind: to come back again next year and do even better.
By losing to Argentina (2-1) and then Germany (3-0) before defeating Australia (2-0), Tunisia's performance at the tournament could be said to be pretty much par for the course. However, no one who saw these three games could have been expecting the Tunisians' play to be of such a high standard.
For far from being outclassed, the Carthage Eagles came within a whisker of making it through to the semi-finals. In their opening match against the Albicelestes, the north Africans could have gone ahead in the 17th minute if Imed Mhadhebi had not blazed his penalty wide of German Lux's goal. Despite looking the equals of their opponents for long periods of the game, South American pragmatism prevailed in the end.
The same pattern persisted a few days later against Germany, where the apparent decisiveness of the final score far from tells the full story. Tested for long spells by an impressive Tunisian team, the Germans had to wait until the final quarter of an hour to establish supremacy in the game. Consequently, Tunisia's disappointment came tinged with hope. "I'm not very happy about the result, but at least we've proved that Tunisia can't be taken lightly," declared captain Hatem Trabelsi after the match.
In their final Group A match, the sense of satisfaction felt by the African champions was twofold. With qualification now impossible, Roger Lemerre opted to try out not only a new system, but also several inexperienced players. The results of this bold experimentation proved positive, as by the end of 90 lively minutes, the Tunisians had secured their first victory at a major FIFA tournament since Argentina 1978.
They were thus able to depart the tournament with their heads held high. "If a bit of luck had been on our side, we maybe could have reached the semi-finals, but I prefer to focus on our good performances," Mehdi Nafti reasoned.
And since Morocco could only draw 0-0 with Kenya on the same night in the African zone qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, June turned out to a pretty good month for Tunisia. With players like Karim Saidi, Wissem Abdi, Karim Essediri, Haykel Guemamdia and Chaouki Ben Saada, all of whom have made names for themselves at this tournament, the future looks bright.
And with two games against Kenya and a home tie with Morocco to come, the Tunisians know that Germany 2006 qualification is in their own hands. Lemerre said: "Our next few matches, especially the ones against Kenya, will be decisive. We are masters of our own destiny and we want to return to Germany in 2006." And if they make it next year, their experience here should have given them reason for confidence as they set foot back on German soil.