Khazri: Tunisia can go far in Russia
Tunisia topped a group containing Congo DR, Guinea and Libya to qualify for Russia 2018
The Eagles of Carthage have been handed a tough draw with England, Belgium and Panama
Tunisia are returning to the world finals after a 12-year absence
Present at three successive FIFA World Cups between 1998 and 2006, the Eagles of Carthage were surprise absentees from South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. As Tunisia midfielder Wahbi Khazri explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, that lengthy absence from the world finals taught him and his team-mates a valuable lesson.
"After 12 years away, we've made history by qualifying for Russia," said Khazri. "We worked hard at our clubs to make sure that we'd be ready for the preliminaries. Thanks to the support of the fans and the perseverance of the players, we've managed to book our ticket for Russia 2018. We're very happy to have done the people of Tunisia proud by qualifying."
A vital ingredient Unlike fellow African qualifiers Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt, the Tunisians do not have any stars playing for Europe’s leading clubs. What they do have, though, is team spirit, a quality that helped them get the better of Congo DR, one of the best teams on the continent.
"We have a great generation of players," Khazri said. "Everyone plays for the team and it's more than just the 11 players on the pitch. We've got 23 or 24 players ready to go out there and give their all. The coach believes in us, which gives us the energy we need to succeed at the World Cup.
"Our strength lies in our preparations as a team," he added. "All our internationals, or nearly all of them, are first-choice players with their clubs. We've been working hard with our clubs. That’s very important if we want to be on top of our game with the national team on a technical and physical level. It's hard to earn a place and everyone knows they have to work with their club to get selected, which explains why the national team has come on so much recently."
New ground? Tunisia have been drawn into a tight group with England, Belgium and tournament newcomers Panama, though Khazri is more concerned about their preparations than their opponents: "I'm optimistic. I don't fear any team at the World Cup. We're going to respect all our opponents, but they'll be showing us respect too because we performed well in qualifying. I hope we can go as far as possible, but we need to be well prepared if we're going to do that."
Though Tunisia failed to reach the second round in their four previous world finals appearances, Khazri believes they can clear the hurdle this time: "Our first objective is to get past the group phase. If we do that, then we'll be able to start dreaming. Our coaching staff know what they're doing and this is a fantastic generation of players. We're trying to play well because that's the most important thing. I think we've got a team that can go far in Russia. We have to fight and give our all on the pitch to do justice to the Tunisian people.
"We all know that preparation is important. We're going to try and address our weak points and develop our strengths so that we can be 100 per cent ready. We're full of confidence because we beat teams like Congo DR and Egypt in the qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations. That's why I think Tunisia can go far at the World Cup."
Did you know?
Tunisia's match against England on 18 June will be the second World Cup meeting between the two countries. England won the first, at France 1998, 2-0.
Tunisia and Belgium played out a 1-1 draw at Korea/Japan 2002. Marc Wilmots opened the scoring, with Raouf Bouzaiene equalising with a free-kick.
Wrapping up our chat, Khazri spoke of the joy he feels at taking part in the World Cup: "This generation deserves to play the World Cup. We've worked really hard on the pitch and it's something we've earned. And we can't forget the fans, who've supported us home and away. It's thanks to them that we beat some big teams and managed to qualify."
Tunisia's group matches at Russia 2018 *Tunisia-England (18 June, Volgograd Arena, 21:00 local time) Belgium-Tunisia (23 June, Spartak Stadium, 13:00 local time) Panama-Tunisia *(28 June, Kaliningrad Stadium, 20:00 local time) Find out more about the Tunisian national team with our team profile.