- Youssef Msakni led his country to the 2018 FIFA World Cup
- Having missed Russia 2018 through injury, his dream is now to play at Qatar 2022
- The player discusses his positive international experience in Doha
Tunisia's captain Youssef Msakni certainly shouldered his responsibility and rose to the occasion when he scored a hat-trick away to Guinea in the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers.
That victory not only secured a place for the Eagles of Carthage at the global tournament in Russia, but also spread joy among the people of his country, which had been absent from the world stage since Germany 2006. But the fates that had smiled on him in West Africa then deserted him at the worst possible moment, a serious knee injury suffered seven weeks before Russia 2018 ruling him out of the flagship event.
And while Msakni missed the chance to play in Russia, he still went to support his team-mates, who won only the country’s second World Cup match there – the first coming at Argentina 1978.
"It is indeed hard to miss the chance to play at a World Cup and wear your country’s colours when you're only a few weeks away from the world's premier sports event," said Msakni in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "This could badly affect any player lacking strength of character, but thanks to God I accepted the situation and told myself I’d make it next time."
Experiencing the global atmosphere
Implicit in Msakni’s vow is that he and his team will work hard to repeat the achievement when they start the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ African qualifiers. And what better motivation for the captain than the fact that he has been playing in the Qatari league with Al Duhail since 2013 and seeing the birth of the modern stadiums that will host the world tournament?
"Yes. Soon I'll complete seven years in Qatar. I came here in 2013, three years after the country won the rights to host the 2022 edition. Since then, the construction of stadiums has never stopped. That has been great. But when we started playing on pitches that will host World Cup games, I became even more motivated to lead my national team to qualify and compete here.
"It's really exciting to experience playing on these pitches, which are luxurious and on par with the world's best arenas. They create the ideal environment for players to perform at their best. I'll convey these feelings to my team-mates to motivate them to battle fiercely in the African qualifiers and reach Qatar 2022."
Tunisia find themselves in qualifying Group B, alongside Zambia, Mauritania, and Equatorial Guinea. The Eagles of Carthage are more experienced than their opponents and are the second-highest placed African team in the FIFA World Ranking, 61 spots ahead of their nearest competitor Zambia (ranked 88). But Msakni does not see that big a difference.
"African football has changed over the past five years. There're no longer technical differences between the majority of teams. We know we must respect everyone and approach each game as if it was a final. We need to accumulate points and qualify. There's no room for mistakes this time."
The African experience
After recovering from his injury, Msakni returned to his role as leader of the national team in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt. The Tunisians drew all three of their group games, which cast doubt on their ability to progress beyond the last 16, for which they qualified as runners-up in Group E. But Msakni and his counterparts looked a different side in the knockout phase, beating Ghana (1-1, 5-4 pens) and then Madagascar (3-0) to set up a tough semi-final against Senegal, which they would ultimately lose by a single goal in extra time.
"Yes, we learned some lessons from that experience," said the skipper. "We as players learn from both wins and losses. There's always an opportunity to learn, focus on positive things, and avoid the negative ones."
Asked to elaborate on that, he added: "The Tunisian fans weren't happy with our performance, but we qualified for the knockout phase, where we showed the ability to compete and win at the kind of tournament where small details can make all the difference. Again, we came close to making the final, which we’d managed in 2004, when we won. But luck was not on our side when we missed a penalty and the game went into extra time.
"The lesson here is there will be some periods in these kind of tournaments (African finals or international qualifiers) that require patience and good preparation to be able to win. Now we have a chance to enhance our displays and perform strongly to reach the final round of the qualifiers and secure our ticket to Qatar."
Msakni's ambition means he will not be resting on his laurels but instead striving for more success. Apart from his desire to qualify for Qatar 2022, he is eyeing up further titles with Al Duhail. Having won the Qatari league twice with the club, he is now closing in on a third.
"Unless a player maintains his drive and sets objectives for himself to achieve, he won't succeed. In every season with Al Duhail I aspire to finish first. We’ll compete for the Qatar Stars League title in the next few days. There are five rounds left to play and we're the favourites, so hopefully we’ll seal the title once again."
After making a name for himself with Esperance Tunis, many expected the player to embark on an international career in Europe. Instead he moved to Qatar, where he is now playing in his eighth season with Al Duhail. He remains a key player which the club has kept faith with over the years despite frequent changes to their squad.
"With each passing year I realise that the decision to move to Qatar was the right one. If I had my time again, I'd make the same decision. The atmosphere here is ideal for professionalism. Many global stars have graduated from this league, with excellent players leading Qatar to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup title. Now the Qataris are getting ready for the World Cup 2022. Most of the players compete in the local league, where a really competitive climate prevails."
Al Duhail have three months to make history once again. They will continue to compete for the league title and have reached the Emir of Qatar Cup final. The club will also play the remaining AFC Champions League games on Qatari soil. "Our team are used to leading the standings," Msakni concluded. "Securing titles is our goal every season. We want to win everything, and I hope we can claim all three titles."