Tunisia wrote a new page in the history books at Argentina 1978 by becoming the first African side to record a win on the world stage. That year they beat Mexico 3-1, but 28 years and three campaigns later they have yet to repeat the feat.
It is a disappointing record, particularly given the fine crop of players coach Roger Lemerre assembled for Germany 2006. Since their calamitous showing four years ago, the Tunisians have won the CAF African Cup of Nations on home soil and can call upon the services of several players attached to prestigious European clubs.
Furthermore, Tunisia made the trip fancying their prospects in a Group H composed of Spain, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia. "We've certainly got a chance," announced Lemerre in Leipzig last December. "It's always easy to say your group is the easiest or the hardest, but it all comes down to how you perform on the pitch in the end." The French coach will reflect with regret that he was proved absolutely right.
In their opening match against Saudi Arabia , the Tunisians got their tournament off to the perfect start with an early goal. They managed to take an early lead against Spain too, but on both occasions conceded an equaliser before falling behind. Only a fierce header from Radhi Jaidi in the final moments of the Saudi Arabia match allowed them to grab a point from those two games and it turned out to be the only one they could muster.
"We're very disappointed to be going home after the first round," explained midfielder Mehdi Nafti. "I think we could have done better. We lacked discipline and freshness and, above all, we couldn't hold our leads." The story could nonetheless have been so much different with a win over the Saudis as defender Karim Haggui admitted. "That setback in our first game was very tough for morale and it hurt us quite a lot," he said.
A forward line without forwards
After Jaouhar Mnari put them ahead in their next outing against Spain , it looked as if the North Africans had found the perfect response to their opening game blues. For more than an hour they kept the Spanish at bay, but the pressure finally told and goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel was beaten three times late on.
That left Tunisia with their backs to the wall as they went into their final fixture, an all-or-nothing clash with Ukraine . Yet Lemerre fielded just one striker, Zied Jaziri - and he was dismissed at the end of the first half - and the Tunisians' fate was sealed when Andriy Shevchenko fired in from the penalty spot.
Thus, a second FIFA World Cup win remains elusive, as does the prospect of an historic first appearance in the knockout phase. The reasons for that appear to boil down to the youthful nature of the squad, inexperience and injuries to key men - not least striker Santos, who saw just a few minutes of action at the end of the Ukraine game. "We had difficulties at the start of the competition, particularly due to injuries," reflected Jaidi. "We also lacked organisation and discipline in our play. Basically, we lacked experience."
'You have to look at the positive side'
The outlook is not all gloomy, though. A lot of the younger squad members, like forward Chaouki Ben Saada, will have learnt from this failed venture and should come back all the stronger.
There will be no next time for Hatem Trabelsi, however, as the full-back announced his international retirement in the wake of Tunisia's exit. And, at 40 years of age, goalkeeper Boumnijel is no doubt sure to join him soon. But with coach Lemerre having just penned a contract extension, the Carthage Eagles will be hopeful of putting things right before 2010 when the FIFA World Cup comes to Africa.