When Sabri Akrout picked up a second yellow card only 38 minutes into Tunisia’s opening Group D match against Venezuela last Friday, centre-half Marouane Sahraoui knew he and his team-mates would have to dig deep.
“In the end, despite being reduced to ten men in the first half, we held on and came out smiling,” said the defender after the North Africans began their FIFA U-17 World Cup campaign with a 2-1 win. “It’s a good first step for us.”
Assessing the team’s merits and shortcomings on the eve of that game, Youssef Zouaoui, the technical director of Tunisia’s national teams, told FIFA.com: “Our players play a positive brand of football, which is very attacking. Given their age, they naturally lack a little tactical maturity. We score goals, but we concede them as well.”
We have a good side and that’s what we want to show the world because people tend to forget about Tunisia.
Yet judging by their stoic performance against the Venezuelans, the Carthage Eagles have been working hard on ironing out their defensive flaws. “We kind of answered what he had to say,” commented Sahraoui in reference to Zouaoui’s words. “We didn’t start the qualifiers that well, it’s true, but like they say, 'every happy story has a sad beginning.' In the end we finished in the top three in the age category for the first time in Tunisia’s history, and here we’ve managed to tough it out in our first match, despite the red card. Obviously we’re still trying to score, but we want to keep the goals down to a minimum too.”
Very much at ease in front of the FIFA.com microphone despite his young age, the central defender displayed plenty of tactical maturity in compensating for the absence of his team-mate in the rearguard. Discussing the reshuffle Tunisia were forced to make after Akrout’s dismissal, Sahraoui said: “We reorganised the whole team, not just the defence. We started the game high up the pitch but once we were a man down we dropped back a bit. Then we just waited for them and tried to hit on the break.”
Points to prove
As a proud Tunisian, Sahraoui is delighted to have the chance to show his love for his country on the global stage: “We have a good side and that’s what we want to show the world because people tend to forget about Tunisia.”
Warming to his theme, he added: “We’re here for ourselves first and foremost, to play and enjoy it, but we also want to show people that Tunisia is here. We’re making progress with our football and there are little seeds that are starting to grow for us. We’re not at the same level as Brazil, but we can play too.”
Regardless of what the next few days hold in store for the North Africans, UAE 2013 will give the teenage centre-back the chance to pick up some valuable experience before returning to his club Esperance, where he is slowly but surely starting to prove his worth. “I signed professional terms a little over a year ago,” he explained. “Up to now I’ve only played in one friendly for the first team, but I’m working hard. It’s not easy to make your way in Tunisia, especially in defence, where they like stability. You have to be patient and earn the coach’s confidence.”
To do that he is trying to follow the examples set by the best in the business: “I don’t have any role model in particular, but there are a few players I watch, like Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Nemanja Vidic and even some of the former players like Jaap Stam and Paolo Maldini. I watch what they do and try to take inspiration from them and apply that on the pitch. What I like most of all is winning the ball back cleanly and getting play going again.”
Sahraoui will need to showcase those qualities again in Tunisia’s next game, which comes on Monday against European champions Russia, who will be anxious to atone for losing to Japan in their opening game. Looking ahead to that task, the stopper said: “Russia play a very fast game. African teams are known for being physically strong, but in North Africa we’re pretty technical and quick too, so we’re used to a fast game.”