He may still be only 24 years of age, but Tunisia's Karim Haggui has already clocked up an impressive amount of experience. The solid defender seems incapable of wasting time, whether it be with his club side Bayer Leverkusen or with his national team. After two years in west Germany, he has become recognised as one of the finest exponents of the defensive arts in the Bundesliga, while on the international scene he won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2004 as well as gracing the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and 2004 Olympic Football Tournament.
Haggui clearly likes the challenges to come thick and fast but he slowed down the tempo long enough to answer a few questions for FIFA.com. The Carthage Eagles stalwart spoke about his ambitions with Leverkusen in this season's Bundesliga plus Tunisia's upcoming - and critically important - qualifier on the road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. "We're in danger," he warns, refusing to paint a rosy picture of the test awaiting Tunisia in Burkina Faso on 6 September.
FIFA.com: Karim, the Bundesliga has just kicked off for another season. What do you hope to achieve with Leverkusen this year?
Karim Haggui: Above all, we want to forget the end of last season and how we failed to meet our objective of qualifying for Europe. But we're still ambitious. The goal is obviously a place in Europe and to win the title the following season, but if we can do it a year early we won't say no!
Looking back at the end of last season, you spent a long time near the top of the standings before losing seven of your last ten games and missing out on the UEFA Cup. How hard was that to take?
It was a real blow given the club's ambitions and the quality of our play. Up until the match against Bayern in Munich, we were second. We lost (2-1) and, after that, we went into a spiral for physical reasons. We reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup and that meant a lot of additional matches, especially as we used the same nucleus of players. We cracked physically and suffered some real setbacks, such as the injury to Bernd Schneider.
The direct result of that was the departure of coach Michael Skibbe and his replacement by Bruno Labbadia. How do their methods differ?
Thanks to Michael Skibbe's work, we developed one of the most attractive styles in the championship. The Bundesliga is associated with direct, physical and powerful play. We go against the grain a little with our more composed, quick and technical approach. Unfortunately, the results didn't follow. With Bruno Labbadia, the keyword is rigour. He's very demanding with himself and with us. If we can keep the quality Skibbe brought us and add Labbadia's demanding side then we can only move forward. Of course, it could take some time for the mix to bear fruit.
Having snapped up Henrique, Renato Augusto, Patrick Helmes and Constant Djakpa, Leverkusen have been busy in the transfer market this summer.
Henrique is a very good defender. He's a direct rival for my position, but competition can only be a good thing. I've seen that throughout my career and it's helped me progress. Augusto will do us a lot of good, as well as lots of damage to our opponents! I understand that in Brazil he's considered as the new Kaka. He knows how to do everything. He's young, very strong technically and has a good feel for where the goal is.
Moving on to the Tunisian national team, you lie second in 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification Group 9 behind Burkina Faso. The group winners alone are certain of reaching the next phase, so how do you see the rest of the competition unfolding - and in particular your next game in Burkina Faso?
. And I don't want to - I can't - imagine Tunisia being eliminated already.
You are one of the more experienced players. Are your younger team-mates aware of how difficult the task will be?
We have a new generation but they need to perform straight away. Everyone has to be conscious of the situation we're in so they can fight to get us out of it. The more experienced figures such as myself, Rahdi Jaidi, Jawhar Mnari and Mehdi Nafti have to make the youngsters understand that it's up to them to write a fantastic story - their story. In 2006, we messed up our World Cup, but it's a little early to be thinking about doing better in 2010. First of all, we need to overcome the next obstacle. We absolutely have to win this match!
There has been a change of personnel in the Tunisia dugout, with Portugal's Humberto Coelho taking over from Frenchman Roger Lemerre. How has the transition gone?
Mr. Lemerre did an enormous amount for us. I want to thank him for the four years of happiness he gave to Tunisia and the experience he brought us. We know about Mr. Coelho because of his time in charge of Morocco and Portugal, but we only truly started getting to know him during the first training camp. He presented his project to us. It's no doubt going to be different from what we did with Mr. Lemerre because it will be more attacking, in the style of the Portuguese national team.
Indeed, Tunisia seem to lack attacking edge and have been relying more and more on defensive solidity. That is fairly rare for an African side.
Tunisia don't fit in with the traditional image of African football. There is less craziness and improvisation. Our national team is very organised; we study our opponents a lot and we insist on concentration. A bit like Egypt. Right now, we have some problems going forward. [Francileudo] Santos is not yet back to his 2004 level, but I have huge confidence in him. I know he'll be back. We also have talented youngsters like Yassine Chikhaoui, Issam Jemaa and Amine Chermiti. It's up to us, the older hands, to give them the desire to win and to help them acquire top-level experience.
In 2010, the FIFA World Cup will be held for the first time on African soil. What does that mean to you?
It's a dream come true for the whole continent. Every African player will tell you that contesting the World Cup in his own backyard is the most fantastic thing he could dream of. I hope with all my heart to take part in it. That's why I can't imagine for a single second that Tunisia won't qualify.
You have been an international since 2003. At just 24 years of age, you have already competed in a FIFA World Cup, an Africa Cup of Nations and the Olympics. What are your most vivid memories?
The best is still the semi-final against Nigeria in the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations (1-1, Tunisia won 5-3 on penalties). It was unforgettable because I scored the decisive kick that sent us into the final, which we went on to win. Obviously, I've also known tough times, especially our first-round exit in 2006. We had the ability to do better and we let the Tunisian people down. But that's football too. You fall down, then you get back up again. That's how you progress; not by never falling over, but by becoming stronger each time you lift yourself up.