Khenissi: Our strength lies in our team spirit
Taha Yassine Khenissi taking part in his third FIFA Club World Cup
Esperance have never won opening game at the tournament
The attacker discusses how they can set that record straight
Taha Yassine Khenissi was only 19 when he experienced his maiden FIFA Club World Cup from the sub's bench at Japan 2011. Although he did not play against Qatar's Al Sadd and Mexico's Monterrey, he learned a lot from that tournament, so much so that when Esperance Sportive de Tunis returned to the competition as CAF Champions League winners at UAE 2018, Khenissi was a key player in the side.
One year on, he is gearing up for another return to the global stage. "It's an honour for every player to play in a competition like the FIFA Club World Cup," he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "Being with a major club like ES Tunis has given me the opportunity to take part in this important world tournament three times."
Reaching Qatar 2019 was no easy task for Khenissi and his team-mates. As the defending champions, ES Tunis were the club everyone wanted to beat in last season's CAF Champions League. "It was a difficult journey, especially when it came to playing a second final in less than six months," he said. "We had a lot of tough games, like the match against Algeria's CS Constantine and the final against Wydad Casablanca of Morocco. But we proved to be the best in Africa for the second year in a row."
Player fact file:
Name: Taha Yassine Khenissi
Height: 6'0 (1.83cm)
Club: Espérance Sportive de Tunis
The first-hurdle complex
The Tunisian club failed to win their opening games in both of their two previous FIFA Club World Cup appearances, losing to Al Sadd at Japan 2011 and to Al Ain of United Arab Emirates in 2018. Reflecting on those defeats, Khenissi said: "We thought more about the semi-final than the first game, which was a mistake. This time we'll be concentrating on our first game against Al Hilal, which will be extremely difficult. Our first mission this time around is to beat Al Hilal and only then we can start thinking about the following matches."
He added: "We want things to be different this time around. We went into the Al Ain game last year as favourites, but we lost because of a lack of experience. This time we want to put those mistakes right, prepare in the best way possible, and focus on every single game."
Their third FIFA Club World Cup appearance, ES Tunis will again face Arab opposition in their tournament opener: a testing 'derby' against Asian champions Al Hilal. "They're a world-class club, not just the best side in Asia," said Khenissi. "With players like [Sebastian] Giovinco, [Bafetembi] Gomis and [Andre] Carrillo, they're a powerful side. But ES Tunis' strength lies in our team spirit. No-one can stop us when we're at our best, and when the match comes around it's the team that remains focused to the end that will win."
Arab sides have distinguished themselves at recent Club World Cups. Morocco's Raja Casablanca reached the 2013 final before losing to Bayern Munich, while UAE's Al Jazira made it to the 2017 semi-finals before going out to Real Madrid. Then in last year's competition Al Ain, another UAE outfit, stunned River Plate in the semi-finals only to lose to Real Madrid in the final.
As far as Khenissi is concerned, such good results can only be achieved by looking no further ahead than the first game: "Arab teams have done really well lately, starting with Raja, then Al Jazira, and finally Al Ain. But as I said, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and repeat the mistakes of 2011 and 2018. Our main focus will be on the first game against Al Hilal. Then we'll see."
The forward, who is also a Tunisia international, hopes their tournament will end with a final against Liverpool. "We're dreaming of playing them," he explained. "We're used to playing for titles. Taking part in this tournament is a dream in itself and we want to go as far as possible. But as I said, we must not look too far ahead. All our focus must be on the first game against Al Hilal. Then we can take it from there."