2016 was a year to remember for Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi. Running out for his club Etoile Sportive du Sahel, where he has spent his entire 14-year career to date, the custodian picked up a league championship winners’ medal and a runners-up medal in the CAF Super Cup and helped his side reach the semi-finals of the CAF Confederation Cup.

With his national team, meanwhile, he played a part in their qualification for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and was also between the posts as the Eagles of Carthage kicked off the third round of the African qualifiers of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ with a brace of wins. As if that were not enough, Mathlouthi married his fiancée in May, at a wedding attended by some of the great and the good of Tunisian football, among them Aymen Abdennour. Life has certainly been good for the 32-year-old keeper these last few months.

“Yes, this last year has definitely been very fulfilling for me on both a sporting and personal level,” Mathlouthi told FIFA.com as 2017 got underway. “It was a case of one good thing after another and it would be hard for me to pick one highlight out, except perhaps the starting point of it all, which came in 2015, when we won the CAF Confederation Cup. As well as kicking off a great run for us, it brought the country together, which was much needed. It felt to me as if all the clubs and all the people of Tunisia were behind us. It was great.”

As both club and national team captain, the popular Mathlouthi knows that one of the main responsibilities of his job involves uniting the players and getting them to focus on the task in hand. While he is more than happy to shoulder that burden, he is also aware of his limits. “I’m very proud to have those responsibilities,” he said. “You really have to give your all. The fact is, though, that I’m one of the old hands at my club and in the national team, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I was named captain.”

Clear priorities
Modest to a fault, Mathlouthi is reluctant to talk about himself and his considerable talent. As the statistics show, however, he has had a big hand in the recent successes enjoyed by Etoile du Sahel and the Eagles of Carthage. In topping the Tunisian league last season, the Sousse club conceded a mere 17 goals, fewer than any other side in the championship, while Tunisia are one of only four teams – the others being Gabon, Morocco and Uganda – who have yet to concede a goal in the third round of the African qualifiers for Russia 2018, which began last October. “I honestly don’t take any personal glory from that,” he said, downplaying the stats. “I just do my job, which is to provide security for the team, do my best and keep things on an even keel. And I’m a firm believer in the idea that we can always do better.”

The keeper has won every title going with his club, from the CAF Confederation Cup in 2006 and 2015 and the CAF Champions League in 2007 to the Tunisian championship that same year and in 2016. He has found achievements harder to come by with the national side, however. With the Africa Cup of Nations about to get under way in Gabon and Tunisia’s hopes of appearing at Russia 2018 well and truly alive, he now has the opportunity to set that record straight. Discussing those challenges, he said: “We’re obviously going to do all we can to get the best possible result at the Africa Cup of Nations, which is a competition that’s very important to us. Personally, though, if I had to choose between winning the Africa Cup of Nations and playing in the World Cup, I’d go for the World Cup without any shadow of a doubt.”

He added: “I’d even swap my two African Champions League titles to go to the World Cup. I had a little taste of what it might be like in 2007, when I played in the Club World Cup in Japan. We beat Pachuca in the quarter-finals, but lost to Boca Juniors in the semis and Urawa Red (Diamonds) in the match for third place. I still have great memories of the tournament despite those defeats. My biggest dream of all, though, is to play in the World Cup with my country, Tunisia. I have to say that it’s an obsession for me.”

Boxing clever

Mathlouthi looks to be well on the way to making that dream a reality. After two rounds of games in Group A, Henryk Kasperczak’s charges are tied at the top with Congo DR on six points, while group rivals Guinea and Libya remain pointless.

“We’ve beaten Libya and Guinea, who are both good sides, and we’ve made a good start to the competition, but that’s all it is: a start,” he said, before looking forward to Tunisia’s back-to-back meetings with the Leopards this coming summer: “We have to look ahead to 2017. Those two games are going to be decisive. They’re the matches that will either light up the road to Russia or see it fall into darkness.”

Nicknamed 'Belbouli' owing to his resemblance to Taoufik Belbouli, a boxing world champion in 1989, Mathlouthi has a few other bouts to face before then, starting with the Eagles of Carthage’s opening match at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations against Senegal this coming Sunday. His objective in that game is to keep a clean sheet and to pick up this year where he left off last.