Kebaier: Tunisia's spirit key to World Cup hopes
In four World Cup participations, Tunisia have never gone beyond the group stage
With a new generation of players, the team now has lofty dreams
Coach Mondher Kebaier discusses his side's ambitions
Thanks to unstinting work by everyone involved, Tunisia have continued to perform at a consistently high level in recent years despite repeated changes of coach.
This was evidenced not just by the Eagles of Carthage being the leading African side in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for lengthy periods of time – they are currently second behind Senegal – but also in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and reaching the semi-final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2019 in Egypt.
After reaching the last four of the continental tournament, the Tunisian Football Federation (FTF) began a new project, focusing on the 2021 AFCON and, more importantly, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifiers. The FTF appointed a Tunisian technical team led by head coach Mondher Kebaier, who they considered well equipped to lead Tunisia to new heights.
"We started working on 1 September 2019 after our AFCON participation," Kebaier told FIFA.com. "It was a difficult time, as we worked to bring on our players, especially their physical fitness."
Asked to elaborate further on this process, the coach said: "We started with high-level friendly games against countries like Mauritania, Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon. That prepared us well for the African Nations Championships and the AFCON qualifiers. We've played seven games so far, and I can see positive energy in our performance. Our first official game was against our neighbour Libya. Matches between neighbours are usually tough, but we prevailed with a great result, scoring four goals. Then we won another difficult away game against Equatorial Guinea."
Tunisia's results under Kebaier
6 September 2019: Tunisia 1-0 Mauritania
10 September 2019: Côte d'Ivoire 1-0 Tunisia
21 September 2019: Tunisia 1-0 Libya
12 October 2019: Tunisia 0-0 Cameroon
20 October 2019: Libya 0-1 Tunisia
15 November 2019: Tunisia 4-1 Libya
19 November 2019: Equatorial Guinea 0-1 Tunisia
Mix of youth and experience
Tunisia have many excellent players who compete locally or in Europe, including Mohamed Drager, Marc Lamti, Firas Chaouat, Bassem Srarfi, Hamza Rafia, Wajdi Kechrida, Montassar Talbi, Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane, Mortadha Ben Ouanes and Saad Bguir. This gives the country a mix of ambitious young players and experienced pros.
"We must build on what we’ve already achieved and not start from scratch again," said the coach. "We need to use the positive work of previous coaches, each of whom certainly had his personal choices. Some players have recently returned to the national team, such as Aymen Abdennour, who was absent for a long time. Ali Maaloul and Saif-Eddine Khaoui, who did not participate in the recent AFCON games, also rejoined the squad. They both have fine qualities, as was shown in the last game against Libya and even against Equatorial Guinea."
"Some of the youngsters have caught the attention of clubs from the Tunisian league and overseas, such as Juventus player Rafia, and Saad Bguir. They played with the national team and produced what was expected of them," he added.
But for Kebaier, individual names are not the key. "Our strength lies in our team spirit. That was apparent in our last game in the AFCON qualifiers. Despite a hand injury, Wahbi Khazri continued to play and was the one who finally scored. The same can be said about Youssef Msakni, who played although he was ill and receiving medical treatment. It's this spirit that will make the difference in the upcoming games."
Dream of reaching World Cup knockout stage
The Qatar 2022 draw put Tunisia in Group B alongside Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia. Asked about their group opponents, Kebaier said: "The teams are more or less at the same level in every group; there are no big differences. AFCON qualifiers are different from World Cup ones, as they involve a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, making one's mission more difficult. As for us, we must be ready for every game."
Kebaier said his team know a great deal about their opponents. "We know Mauritania very well, as we’ve played against them more than once. We’re also familiar with Equatorial Guinea, against whom we’re competing in the AFCON qualifiers. And we know all about the abilities of Zambia. Therefore, we need to play in a spirit of solidarity and with a strong will to qualify."
Tunisia participated at the 1998, 2002, and 2006 World Cups but missed out on the global showpiece in 2010 and 2014. They returned to world stage for Russia 2018 and now look forward to gracing Qatar 2022.
"Naturally, we’re aiming to qualify for Qatar 2022," the coach confirmed. "Tunisia is used to being represented at major events at both continental and global level, so we must be present at the next World Cup."
Before concluding, the Tunisian coach referred to his dream of making it to the second phase of the tournament for the first time in the country's history, a goal that previous generations failed to achieve.
"Sooner or later Tunisia will reach the second round of the World Cup finals. We hope this can be achieved by this generation. We go into every competition with a spirit of optimism, aiming to win games and progress as far as possible. If we qualify, we’ll have to battle on the pitch and play with huge passion to achieve this goal."