Saber Khalifa and Tunisia went from despair to joy in the space of a few short days last month. The despair came when they were beaten 2-0 at home by Cape Verde Islands in the CAF qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, a result that sent the Blue Sharks through to the final round at their expense.
Then came the joy, when it was found that Cape Verde had fielded an ineligible player in that decisive group game, an administrative oversight the gave the Carthage Eagles an unexpected reprieve.
Promptly reinstated in the competition, the Tunisians enjoyed less luck in the draw for the African Zone’s final knockout round, when they were paired with Cameroon, whom they face in the first leg of the winner-takes-all tie in Rades this coming Sunday. Yet having been eliminated once, Khalifa and his team-mates now have literally nothing to lose.
Reflecting on that defeat to the Cape Verdeans and the anguish that greeted it, the front man told FIFA.com: “We’d lost everything and we couldn’t go any lower. I was absolutely disgusted.”
He added: “Then, three or four days later, the news came through. I could hardly believe it. I was at home and a Tunisian journalist sent me a message to say we’d qualified. I thought it was a joke at first, but then I went on Facebook and saw the thousands of messages saying that Cape Verde had fielded a suspended player.”
Elated but still a little suspicious, Khalifa decided to check the story out: “I called the national team’s officials and they confirmed the news to me. One minute we were at the bottom of the pit and the next we were back on road leading to the World Cup. It’s a gift from God, a miracle.”
Continuing to expand on the subject of Tunisia’s reprieve, the Olympique Marseille centre-forward said: “Playing in the World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that we let slip. We were out of the race and then, all of a sudden, we got another chance. It’s a miracle. How many teams get an opportunity like that?”
Answering his own question, he said: “I remember Denmark at EURO 1992. They failed to qualify, and then they got the call at the last minute and went on to win the tournament! They took their chance and we’ve got to try and take inspiration from that.”
As Khalifa went on to acknowledge, however, there was a very good reason why Tunisia needed fate to intervene in their World Cup campaign in the first place: “We know how lucky we are, but this miracle doesn’t make us a better team in any way. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we lost at home to Cape Verde. We can’t relax and we have to fight hard to make the most of this chance and give our all to go through. It’s the biggest match of our lives.”
Eternally grateful for the lucky break, Khalifa has endured more than a few knocks in a career that has finally taken him to one of Europe’s big clubs. After serving his apprenticeship with Stade Gabesien, he spent five seasons with Tunis giants Esperance.
Though there were high points, among them a run to the 2010 CAF Champions League final, which ended in defeat, there were plenty of lows too, not least when he incurred the wrath of Esperance officials and fans for scoring a goal against the club while on loan at Hammam Lif in 2010.
After going without a game for six whole months, he signed a pre-contract agreement with French outfit Evian-Thonon-Gaillard in 2011 before being shipped out on loan again that same year, this time to Al Ahli Benghazi of Libya.
From the war zone to the elite
He had played only two games for Al Ahli when civil war broke out. “We were terrified of being killed,” said the player on his safe arrival in France. “There were no policemen or soldiers in the streets or planes in the sky, but there were pistols and Kalashnikovs everywhere.”
Two years on, and one move from Evian to l’OM later, Khalifa finds himself mixing it with the best in Ligue 1 and taking on Europe’s finest in the UEFA Champions League.
“I’ve been through lots of tough times in my life but I’ve had no other choice than to be strong,” he explained. “I’ve chosen a fantastic profession, even if reaching the very top of it is tough to say the least.”
Along the way he has worked a miracle or two of his own. One of them came in a league match between Evian and Nice in May, when Khalifa, stationed in his own half, spied the opposition keeper off his line and arrowed the ball into the net from fully 64 metres out. The goal was rightly shown around the world.
“That was another gift from God,” he joked. “Everything about it was perfect: the power, the angle, the position, the accuracy. The only problem is that everyone now expects me to score more goals like that.”
It remains to be seen whether he can conjure up another miraculous strike against the Cameroonians. One thing for sure, however, is that should Khalifa score the goal that takes his country to Brazil, whether from far out or close in, he can expect a lifetime’s adoration from the Tunisian fans.