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The Tunisian 78ers do it for Africa

A picture taken on June 2, 1978 shows Tunisian national team players posing for a group picture
  • ​Egypt, Morocco and Zaire had all failed to win Africa its first match
  • A Hugo Sanchez-spearheaded Mexico went ahead
  • Tunisia rallied to win Africa another place at Spain 1982

African football has had a progressive run of FIFA World Cup™ highlights: winning the battle for a unique place at Mexico 1970, winning a first-ever game in the finals in 1978, progressing past the first round for the first time in 1986, reaching the quarter-finals in 1990 and fielding a record six teams at the tournament.

Each step along the way has been a significant bridgehead for the African game, bringing the continent from a level of footballing poverty up to the high table. Join as we look at the dramatic story of an unlikely Tunisian victory that became a key moment in the development of the continent’s game.

The stakes
Tunisia’s win over Mexico in Rosario at the 1978 finals was a massive breakthrough for the confidence of the African game. The first-ever World Cup win for an African side led directly to an extra place at Spain 1982 for the continent, but just as importantly allowed future teams to set higher benchmarks and aim for bigger success. The win by the World Cup debutantes was as emphatic as it was historic on a day when the African game came of age.

Heading into the match, Tunisia and Mexico knew it was going to be tough for both of them to gain a place in the second round of the 1978 FIFA World Cup, given that they had been drawn in the same group as Poland and West Germany. The Germans were defending champions and the Poles had made it to the semi-finals four years earlier. The two powers played out a goalless draw in the tournament’s opening game at Buenos Aires’ Monumental Stadium. Mexico and Tunisia met the next day in a bid to put their noses ahead in the group, even if for just a few days. Tunisia were the unknowns and given little chance against Mexico, by then already well acquainted with the finals.

The Carthage Eagles were fortunate to be there, having been suspended just months earlier for walking off the pitch during a CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals match in Nigeria, which prompted a two-year ban for the team and a three-year sanction for the instigator, goalkeeper Attouga Sadouk. The Confederation of African Football had also threatened to ask FIFA to extend the ban to worldwide competition, and there was a 10-day period of angst for Tunisia before it was decided it would be too complicated at a late hour to appoint a new African representative to travel to Argentina. Given that it would be Tunisia’s last chance in international football for the foreseeable future, their players carried added motivation.

The story
Both Mexico and Tunisia started the game at break neck speed and never seemed to let up. It led to a thrill for the spectators and end-to-end action, although the build-up play was not matched by the finishing in front of goal. It seemed both sides had been sent out to score at all costs and they breached each other’s defence with abandon. Neither looked particularly concerned about tactics, particularly in their own halves.

It was Mexico who had the better of the first half, dominating the midfield through Hugo Sanchez and Leonard Cuellar, unmissable with a huge mop of hair on his head. Tunisia started out shaky and they could have gone behind as early as the sixth minute except Mohsen Jendoubi was able to clear a shot off the Tunisia goal line. However, by the interval, El Tri were finally ahead - from a penalty, converted by Arturo Vasquez after Omar Jebali had handled the ball.

But remarkably, the Africans staged a second-half comeback, scoring three without reply as Mexico wilted under the pressure and looked tired and disjointed. The equaliser came just 10 minutes into the second half as midfield playmaker, Tarek Dhiab, chipped the ball into the path of Ali El Kaabi, whose weak, almost stubbed, shot eluded goalkeeper Jose Pillar Reyes. Buoyed by the goal, Tunisia’s running undid their opponents as Nejib Ghommidh came strongly in from the right wing to score the second goal with 10 minus left.

Ghommidh then set up the third right near the end with a searching pass from left to right across the fringe of the opposing penalty area, accurately finding Mokhtar Douieb, who was rushing on to the ball at pace but still had time to dink it over the goalkeeper as he came striding off his line to attempt an intercept. The teams left the field to chants of “Tunez, Tunez, Tunez”.

The star
Tarek Dhiab stood upright and elegant as he worked the midfield like a puppeteer controlling a multiple cast at a children’s show. He probed and passed, collected and turned, all the time keeping a tight rein on the ball. He had played with much the same dominance in the World Cup qualifiers and at the end of 1977, at the tender age of 23, had been crowned African Footballer of the Year.

What they said
“The French have their 68ers, revolutionary students making their mark on the social-cultural landscape. We have our 78ers, a generation of footballers who were outstanding.”
Abdelmajid Chetali, Tunisia coach

What happened next?
Tunisia next lost narrowly by a single goal to Poland in an evenly-contested game while an unglued Mexico went down 6-0 to the reigning champions. It meant the Mexicans were eliminated while Tunisia had the onerous task of beating the Germans to move on. It was an impossible mission but the north Africans made a go of it and in the end forced a credible goalless draw. Mexico finished with a 3-1 loss to Poland, going home with no points and having conceded 12 times. Tunisia’s performance helped make a successful case for Africa to have its number of slots at the World Cup doubled up for Spain 1982.

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