When Tunisia discovered they would be staying in Sharjah to contest their three Group D matches at the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013, Youssef Zouaoui could hardly have been more delighted. Now serving as technical director of Tunisia's international teams, the distinguished former coach enjoyed spells in charge of the city's two leading clubs a few years back, towards the end of his management career.
Still a coach at heart, the 67-year-old boasts one of the most impressive CVs in Tunisian football and held the reins at the country's biggest teams. Sitting on his old bench in the Sharjah SC dugout he occupied during the 2004/05 campaign, Zouaoui agreed to share his thoughts and memories with FIFA.com. "The team had just been promoted to the first division after a period of decline," he said, recalling his time at Sharjah. "Despite that, they had been the country's most successful club in the 1980s and totally dominated Emirati football. Nine of the starters in the national team played here."
For me, the favourites in our group are Russia, because of the rhythm of their play and their speed.
Indeed, when the UAE made their sole FIFA World Cup™ finals appearance at Italy 1990, a large percentage of their players hailed from Sharjah, but those days were long gone by the time Zouaoui arrived. "A change in the rules meant that four teams had to go down to the second division at the end of the season," he explained.
"The President and the players were afraid of relegation. I was new, though, and I had an ambitious outlook. I told them they had to aim high, and as a result we finished fifth." That achievement was not enough to keep Zouaoui around for another season, however. "By a twist of fate I ended up going to Al Sha'ab, the neighbouring rivals," he said, recalling reaction to news of his switch with a smile. "Some people weren't too happy. But I won quite a few derbies for both teams, so let's just say that I made friends on each side of the divide."
After that, he was soon on the move again, heading to Dubai to take the reins of Al-Ahli.
World Cup dream
He may have had stints at both the city's leading outfits, but Zouaoui was granted the warmest of welcomes upon his return to Sharjah SC's ground, where ten UAE 2013 games will be held. So much so that the interview had to be suspended when one of his former players – now working as a security guard – came over to exchange a few words.
So, does Zouaoui miss his old role? "Of course I get nostalgic because I'm someone who likes to be involved – I love the smell of the pitch," he said, watching Tunisia undergo training on the field he knows so well, with Venezuela their first opponents on Friday.
"For me, the favourites in our group are Russia, because of the rhythm of their play and their speed," he added. "They have very quick wingers. We don't fear them, but we'll have to pay very close attention to that. Our own 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."
Abdelhay Ben Soltane's squad clinched their spot in the global gathering by finishing an impressive third at the 2013 CAF African U-17 Championship, their maiden podium finish in the competition. The target now is to go further than the most successful Carthage Eagles side at this level, who reached the last 16 at the 2007 edition before succumbing to France.
"Our goal here is to do even better," said Zouaoui. "We've been following this generation for three years. They've worked together in a training centre and a good mixture of elements has emerged. Instead of stars, we have a consistent set of players who complement each other well and have a good team spirit. Those qualities helped us make the difference in terms of getting here. Now we're at the World Cup and we hope to do something here."
Given that his present role involves coordinating Tunisia's various national teams, Zouaoui will also be paying close attention to the senior side when they tackle Cameroon in Yaounde on 17 November, with their ticket to Brazil 2014 very much in the balance. "Taking part in the World Cup is the dream of every Tunisian," he said. "Our people, especially now, need that achievement because football completely transcends the atmosphere of the country. People live and breathe the national team and football."