For Tunisia, reaching the finals of a FIFA World Cup is
certainly no mean feat. Despite the men's national team having
already qualified for the senior event four times (in 1978, 1998,
2002 and 2006), the country's youngsters have only ever reached
the U-17 finals once in their history.
That was in Japan in 1993, when they fell back to earth with a bump after the first round. Nevertheless, 14 years later the Carthage Eaglets are relishing the prospect of a return to Asia and a second shot at global glory, this time on Korean soil.
In order to ready his young charges for their eagerly awaited
launch, Maher Kanzari has been busily putting the Tunisians through
their paces since the start of June, more than two months before
their first match. Why such a long and intense build-up, you may
ask? According to the 32-year-old coach, a former midfielder with
Esperance Sportive de Tunis, the aim is simply to make sure his
players are all set for the big push.
"We've formulated a training programme which will be rigorously adhered to," revealed the up-and-coming trainer after the draw. "Our aim is to be highly competitive, and if that helps us to get good results, we won't be complaining. After all, that's what we're really hoping for."
Healthy mind, healthy body
The first stage of the programme was by no means taxing. In fact, having already secured qualification for Korea during the CAF African U-17 Championship in Togo, the young Tunisians were subsequently treated to a well-earned two-and-a-half month rest. Besides taking a break after the rigours of the continental tournament, the youngsters also spent some of the time catching up on school work.
Having exercised their brains, it was then time to get their
bodies into shape. Two training camps were scheduled for the start
of June, the first in Ai Draham, near Tunis, and the second in
While the aim of the first camp, according to Kanzari, was to get the players back to fitness, the second attributed greater importance to technical and tactical aspects. This meant the young Aiglons already had a spring in their step as they headed into Syria for the next stage of their build-up, which was more focused on preparing them for the conditions of the upcoming campaign.
The Eaglets took full advantage of their trip to the Middle East
by playing two matches against fellow Korea 2007 qualifiers Syria.
Despite his team turning in some unconvincing results - a 1-1 draw
and a 4-3 defeat - it was all in a day's work for coach
Kanzari. "It doesn't worry me because the team is just
beginning to click," he said.
"For us, the most important thing is being ready to perform on D-Day. Right now, we're looking to improve the individual fitness of certain players who have been over-exerted or who are returning from injury. During the first match, the players weren't really firing on all cylinders, even if they didn't actually lose.
"During the second match, we were more focused and committed. We controlled the ball well and looked impressive as a unit, which is why we were able to score three goals. Even so, we occasionally switched off in defence, which explains why we conceded so many." At least Kanzari still has time to iron out the creases over the course of their remaining training sessions.
Building the fighting spirit
As their preparations took them into Switzerland at the end of July, the Aiglons predictably succumbed 2-0 to their hosts' U-17 side, before brushing aside a regional selection 4-0 with a performance that suggested the rigorous training schedule was finally beginning to pay off. During the final two stages of this intense programme - a camp on home soil from 30 July to 7 August followed by a session in Germany - the young Tunisians will face the national U-20 teams of Libya and the United Arab Emirates respectively. Justifying the decision to pit his young charges against adversaries of a higher age category, Kanzari maintains that it will build their fighting spirit.
When the tournament kicks off in earnest, the Tunisians will
have the chance to put their tough build-up experience to good use,
first against Belgium on 20 August in Changwon, then against USA
and Tajikistan. While the draw seems to have largely favoured his
team, the Tunisian coach is nevertheless keen to manage
"I don't think we should get carried away just yet. You could say the Group lacks big names but that doesn't mean a thing, especially in this age category. It's better to avoid making rash judgements about other teams," he warned.
Nevertheless, Kanzari's tentative approach will do little to temper the enthusiasm of the Tunisian supporters, who are desperate to see their national team win every match, regardless of the age level. In fact, as far as the fans are concerned, the team's passage through to the second round is as good as booked. Although anticipation is already building now that the definitive squad list has been announced, the unflappable Eaglets are determined to avoid getting caught up in the storm of excitement.