Fast start fuels Tunisian faith
© AFP

When it comes to major international competitions, results are all that count, as Tunisia’s Issam Jomaa reminded FIFA.com in the days leading up to their CAF Africa Cup of Nations debut against Morocco on Monday.

“The squad’s right up to full strength and we’ve been working really well,” said the Auxerre striker from their Dubai training camp. “We’ve got two friendlies to put right the things we that didn’t work in the qualifiers.”

In those games the Carthage Eagles downed Sudan 3-0 before losing to Côte d’Ivoire, a result that, as it turned out, did not shake the belief of a motivated side that has regained its belief after coming close to missing out on the continental finals altogether.

Proof of that came on Monday, when Sami Trabelsi’s men saw off Maghreb neighbours Morocco 2-1, which leaves them sitting pretty in Group C of the Africa Cup of Nations. For the former international defender, who won 54 caps for his country, it was the perfect way to follow up last year’s triumph in the African Nations Championship, and just reward for his painstaking preparations.

Having spent the best part of the last 12 months readying his charges for the big event, Trabelsi can take satisfaction from the fact that the lessons of a tortuous qualification campaign, in which they only made sure of their finals place in their last game, have been learned.

Getting the job done
“The difference for me is the will to win,” he said after the Tunisians had got the better of Eric Gerets’ side in Libreville in a repeat of the 2004 final won by Roger Lemerre’s Tunisia. “We really wanted this victory and we really believed in it. All in all, we were more motivated, more focused and more disciplined.”

“No one wants to play three games and go home,” said Jomaa, voicing the determination in the Tunisian camp in the build-up to the competition. “We’re heading there with the aim of going all the way, and with Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria all failing to qualify, who’s to say we won’t? I can tell by the look in our eyes and our level of commitment that we’re going to do well. I’m convinced of it.”

Having missed the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and formed part of the side that made a first round exit at the continental finals that same year, the former Lens man, who sat out Monday’s game because of injury, believes Tunisia are back on track after their qualification problems.

“We got ourselves into a mess of our own making in qualifying,” said the highest goalscorer in the country’s history. “We came up short in a couple of straightforward games, but we were lucky enough to get out of trouble and we can’t afford to waste this opportunity now. We’re desperate to make up for past mistakes and we need to concentrate and cut out the silly errors. The only way is to play our hearts out for 90 minutes, and not a minute less.”

In it for the long haul
Delighted with the “single-mindedness and focus” of his team, who were outplayed at times by the Moroccans but never lost sight of their tactical gameplan, Trabelsi’s faith in his side appears to well-founded. The feeling is mutual.

“He’s played in the big leagues and he’s got the experience and the authority he needs to make a success of things in the Africa Cup of Nations,” commented an appreciative Jomaa, who spoke before the tournament of the need to get off to a good start against the Atlas Lions: “A draw with Morocco would be a huge confidence boost and would get us off on the right foot. And if we lose, we shouldn’t panic, though it could affect our morale.”

Having exceeded their striker’s pre-tournament expectations by taking all three points, Tunisia need not worry about their morale, which will be further strengthened should they take maximum points from Friday’s match with Niger, who were beaten by co-hosts Gabon in their opening game.

With the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil on the horizon, Jomaa is also taking a long-term view: ”Provided that we have a good Africa Cup of Nations, this team should stay together over the next four years. If not, then no doubt there’ll be changes, which is something we don’t want.”