For the first time in their history, Tunisians hope to get beyond the first round of the Qatar World Cup.
- World Cup appearances: 1978, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2018
- Titles: 0
- Best finish: Group stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2018)
- World Cup record: W2 D4 L9
- Goals: 13
- Biggest win: 3-1 v Mexico (1978)
- Players to watch: Youssef Msakni & Hannibal Mejbri
- Ranking: 30
- Group stage fixtures: Denmark (November 22), Australia (November 26), France (November 30)
If there were a comprehensive ranking of the squad strength of the 32 countries competing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, many observers would likely place Tunisia near the bottom of the list.
The Tunisian team lacks recognizable names that the ordinary football fan would recognize. Instead, Tunisia compensates for an alleged lack of talent on paper with intangibles.
“Grinta” (Italian for grit) has become the national team’s motto and reflects the underdog mentality the Tunisians exhibit on the field.
Historically, they have used these intangibles to perform groundbreaking feats at the World Cup. In 1978, for example, Tunisia became the first African or Arab nation to win a World Cup match by defeating Mexico 3-1 in the opening encounter of the group stages.
Suggested Read: 1978 World Cup: The Day Tunisia Made History in Argentina
Unfortunately, successive tournament performances did not live up to the expectations set by Tarek Dhiab’s golden spell in Argentina. Tunisia is the only one of the five African participants in Qatar that has never advanced past the group stage.
Numerous Carthage Eagles fans in Qatar are aware that their team is, once again, not favored to advance to the knockout round. In spite of this, coach Jalel Kadri’s squad will not temper their ambitions and will present a formidable challenge to Denmark, Austria, and France in Group D.
Tunisia has surrendered around half a goal per game in more than 50 matches dating back to 2019. The team’s midfield is their greatest strength. Assa Ladouni and Ellyes Skhiri, who play holding positions in the middle of the field, are more than capable of delivering the ball neatly to more capable attackers.
Wahbi Khazri, Naim Sliti, and Youssef Msakni make together a formidable, experienced attacking front line.
Qatar 2022 could be the pinnacle of Msakni’s professional career.
After a successful club career with Esperance de Tunis at home, he defied expectations in 2013 by rejecting a move to Europe and instead choosing to make the Qatar Stars League his home.
Since his transfer a decade ago, the Tunisian master has become one of the best players to ever grace the Qatari field. Before the 2018 World Cup, Msakni sustained a serious knee injury that prevented him from competing. Four years later, his career arc has gone full circle, and “the ferret,” as he is called in Tunisia, is ready to wrap out his playing days by advancing his country to the knockout rounds.
Despite the fact that Tunisia’s midfield is a definite strength, the team’s goalkeeping leaves much to be desired. Aymen Dahmen, the 25-year-old goalkeeper for CS Sfaxien, has performed adequately this year, but Tunisian goalkeepers are renowned for making embarrassing errors at major competitions, and Dahmen’s inexperience on this stage may unnerve fans.
Tunisia lacks a true target man as well. Khazri has filled in as a striker for the past three seasons, but the former Sunderland winger lacks the size to compete in the air with centre-backs.
The final and most troublesome question over the Tunisian national team is coach Kadri, who will be one of two coaches in Qatar who have never played a single minute of senior football in any country’s top league (the other is Canada’s John Herdman).
Kadri is viewed as a limited manager who will accommodate the senior players in his squad, take orders from higher-ups in the federation, and eventually fail to implement the type of game plans Tunisia would require to shock the European powers in their group.
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