Issam Jomaa is becoming used to battling. The Tunisian forward spent last season on loan to Caen last season and thus did not suffer Lens' relegation to Ligue 2. However, he returned to the northern club in the summer of 2008 to help them turn things around and, like his team-mates, has been surprised by the way their second-tier rivals raise thier game when facing the famous Sang et Or.
"Every team we play are up for it 200 per cent," he told FIFA.com. "Ligue 2 is a tighter, more aggressive competition than Ligue 1. It's ideal to make sure you keep a decent rhythm going. We're nearly there, however; one last effort and then we'll be back in the top flight."
Left-footed Jomaa has certainly maintained his rhythm and continues to be a regular for the Tunisian national team despite playing in the second division. "Representing my country is always a source of real pride, even more so for me this year. It's a breath of fresh air in a stifling season where I am under a lot of pressure."
And so as the Ligue 2 frontrunners enter the home straight, the former Esperance de Tunis player is also looking forward to the third and final African qualifying round for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Tunisia find themselves hot favourites in Group B ahead of Mozambique, Nigeria and Kenya. "After qualifying for the last three tournaments, there's no room for error any more," he said. "The fans in Tunisia are really passionate and we owe them to make it to South Africa in 2010."
The fans in Tunisia are really passionate and we owe them to make it to South Africa in 2010.
If they are to qualify, the team coached by Portugal's Humberto Coelho will have to battle for every point in what promises to be a tight group. Tunisia have their first match on 28 March away to Kenya in Nairobi, and Jomaa cannot wait. "It's an advantage, playing the first match away from home - it takes some of the pressure off you," he says. "We played away to Kenya three years ago in the qualifiers, and I have particularly fond memories as I scored my first international goal there (in a 2-0 win on 3 September 2005)." Since then, the forward has brought his tally to 13 goals in 31 matches, making him one of the top scorers in his country's history.
Despite the fact that Tunisia seem to have coasted through the first two rounds of qualifying on the road to South Africa 2010, with four wins and a draw in six matches, they have done it the hard way, having changed coaches in mid-campaign. On 30 June 2008, four matches in, Roger Lemerre gave way to Coelho, but despite the success that the Frenchman had enjoyed at the helm, leading the team to victory in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2004, Tunisia's players took the switch in their stride.
"It was new for me since I had never experienced a change like that in mid-competition," said Jomaa. "At the beginning we were all a bit shy, but we had two training camps which really broke the ice. Mr Coelho's style is very similar to Mr Lemerre's. They are two great coaches who like to have a close relationship with their players, and that's something I appreciate a lot. They understand us straight away and they get their message across easily."
Although he is only 25, Issam is already a lynchpin for the Carthage Eagles. He has enjoyed 415 minutes playing time thus far in the qualifiers - the second most in the team - and is also the top scorer alongside Hichem Essifi and Chaouki Ben Saada with two goals. Not that this major role is one that makes him nervous. "It gives me so much confidence for the future. I don't feel under any particular pressure as a striker; wearing the country's colours is already an immense responsibility as it is."
This confidence could be pivotal to Tunisia in the upcoming qualifying double header. While many players insist that making it through to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola is their first priority, Jomaa is not one for false modesty. "Our main aim is the World Cup, not the CAN. If we qualify for South Africa that means that we will already have made it through to Angola a few months earlier. That's my take on the situation." A refreshing attitude, and one that could well pay dividends.