The pressure is certainly on for Tunisia and their coach Sami Trabelsi, whose side are facing a real battle to qualify for the 2012 edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Plunged into a footballing crisis after their narrow failure to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the Carthage Eagles’ continental fate is likely to be decided in 3 September’s crunch meeting with Group K rivals Malawi.
With two games remaining, the pair are level on ten points – a whopping seven behind surprise table-toppers Botswana but with a game fewer played – and Saturday’s clash will go a long way to defining who claims the section’s second qualifying berth. FIFA.com spoke to the Tunisia supremo about his side’s chances against Malawi, the Preliminary Draw for Brazil 2014 and his thoughts on his time so far at the helm of the Carthage Eagles.
FIFA.com: You’re getting ready for a crunch match in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. What are your thoughts on the Malawi game and, should you qualify, how do you think you’ll fare at the tournament?
Sami Trabelsi: It certainly is a crunch match. Tunisia have been vulnerable throughout the qualifying campaign because we haven’t got the results we hoped for. That's why the team’s involvement in the tournament comes down to an away game against Malawi. The match is a tough one and the team are in a difficult situation due to missing players, but we’re going to try and put our earlier group results behind us and perform to the standard we know we can in order to book our ticket to the finals.
You took the coach’s position prior to the previous round of qualifiers. How would you describe the task ahead of you, and what strategies have you put in place?
It’s like you say: I took on the job after the team had already won two, lost two and drawn one game. We’d dropped four vital points on home soil, which made the team’s task even more difficult. As a former captain and member of the coaching staff it was my duty to accept the challenge. We’d managed to win over the Tunisian Football Association and the fans after good performances on our way to a first ever victory at the African Nations Championship in Sudan this year, and I accepted the offer of head coach without hesitation. It’s every coach’s dream to lead his country.
When I took over I instituted a philosophy centred on teamwork, designed to avoid over-reliance on individual players. It really empowered the guys; they all want to give everything they have for the national team. We had a promising start when beating Chad 5-0, which put us back into contention after Malawi’s draw against Botswana. We’ve recently played two games, firstly against Central African Republic featuring our Europe-based players, then against Jordan when a lot of our first-choice lads were absent. But I believe we’ll be well-prepared for the Malawi game. The most important thing will be to perform well.
How do you explain Tunisia’s recent poor performances and results?
To be perfectly honest with you, our technical preparation and training had been on the slide for years, but it wasn’t obvious from the outside until we threw away the chance to qualify for the 2010 World Cup against Mozambique. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it put the team’s long-term problems on display. We’d been suffering from the disorganized state of African football, with almost no coordination between the scheduling of the continent’s various competitions and those of the major international tournaments.
For instance, CAF’s two club competitions, the Champions League and Confederation Cup, are held when players should be taking their end-of-season break. It’s also hard to call up players from Europe when you can’t find time in the schedule. Take our friendly against Jordan: we picked our team from a squad of only 17 players that included not a single Europe-based professional. If we want to be competitive in Africa we have to try and avoid these obstacles, and that comes down to good scheduling.
To return to the team’s performance at the 2011 African Nations Championship in Sudan: what did winning the tournament mean to Tunisia?
Before the competition nobody gave us a chance. It’s a local tournament, which means local players only: no foreign-based professionals are allowed. But when we got underway we immediately began attracting attention, not only from the Tunisian public, but internationally. It was a fantastic tournament for us: we put in some excellent displays and proved that Tunisia can make their mark wherever they play.
We need to focus on this achievement and take heart from it. We did everything we could to show Tunisian football in the best light and managed to translate performances into results. Most importantly it re-established our bond with the public. Winning back the trust of our country at such a critical time was a huge boost to the team, and we’re looking to achieve even more against Malawi and go through and qualify.
We’ve had the draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, so what do you think of your group and how do you rate your chances of making the finals?
I could say what everyone else is saying and tell you it’ll be easy. But that’s on paper! Given the situation in African football at the moment, you have to wary and prepare well for every single opponent, no matter how obscure. The results from last year and this one clearly show that the gap between the historically strong and successful teams and the up-and-coming sides is narrowing all the time. Who would have guessed that Egypt would fail to qualify for the Cup of Nations after winning the last three titles? Plus, Algeria and Cameroon are also facing an uphill battle. We simply cannot sit back and expect an easy ride. If we want to qualify for the finals and make up for our failure in the 2010 South Africa qualifiers, then every single game requires our full focus.
You’ve got a number of team members playing their football in Europe. Does this make the side stronger, do you think?
Without a shadow of a doubt. Everyone knows that Tunisia are a big exporter of football talent to European shores, but we want these same players to put their talent at the service of the national team. We’ve sent out a clear message that the side is all about teamwork: no player walks into the team on the strength of his reputation if he can’t play as part of a group. Once again, these foreign-based players get no guarantees, but we want them to bring their experience to the side, and we hope that’s what will happen.
Finally, do you feel it’s harder coaching an international or a club side?Personally speaking, I prefer coaching national teams. There’s a lot of pressure, it’s true, but for me the coach’s job is to take on the lion’s share of the pre-game preparations, keeping an eye on the players’ development and marrying the right strategy to each game, not to mention making the right decisions when it comes to picking the team. The most important thing is finding the time to train the squad before games. When it comes to major tournaments, your role is to make sure the team gels and plays as a unit out on the pitch.