Can Tunisia finally manage to get past the World Cup group stage?

The North Africans are hoping to progress beyond the first round of the Qatar World Cup for the first time in their history.

Tunia national team
The North African side does not boast household names that your average football fan would be familiar with [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

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)
Player to watch: Youssef Msakni
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 participating nations in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, there is a good chance that many analysts would place Tunisia near the very bottom.

The North Africans do not boast household names that your average football fan would be familiar with. Instead, Tunisia relies on intangibles to compensate for a supposed lack of talent on paper.

“Grinta” (Italian for grit) has become the national team’s ethos and it perfectly encapsulates the underdog spirit the Tunisians embody on the pitch.

Historically, they have employed those intangibles to trigger trailblazing accomplishments at the World Cup. For instance, Tunisia made history in 1978 by defeating Mexico 3-1 in the first match of the group stages, becoming the first African or Arab country to win a match at a World Cup.

Unfortunately, subsequent appearances at the tournament failed to live up to those standards that Tarek Dhiab’s golden generation set in Argentina. In fact, of the five African representatives in Qatar, Tunisia are the only ones that have never managed to get past the group stages.

Supporters of the Carthage Eagles, who will be numerous in Qatar, understand that they are, once again, not favoured to qualify for the knockout stages. Notwithstanding, coach Jalel Kadri’s men will not curb their ambition and they will be a tough challenge for Denmark, Austria and France in Group D.

Dating back to 2019, Tunisia has conceded about half a goal per game over a span of more than 50 matches. The team’s strengths are in their disciplined midfield. Aïssa Laïdouni and Ellyes Skhiri anchor the middle of the pitch in holding roles and are more than capable of cleanly distributing possession to more capable attacking players.

Wahbi Khazri, Naim Sliti and Youssef Msakni compose an excellent attacking front line with boatloads of experience.

Msakni, in particular, will feel that Qatar 2022 could be the crowning moment of his career.

After an illustrious club career back home with Esperance de Tunis, he bucked all expectations by refusing a move to Europe in 2013, and preferring to instead make the Qatar Stars League his home.

In the decade since his transfer, the Tunisian maestro has gone on to become one of the best players to ever grace the pitch in Qatar. Prior to the World Cup in 2018, Msakni suffered a debilitating knee injury that ruled him out of the competition. Four years later, his career trajectory has come full circle and “the ferret”, as he is known in Tunisia, seems ready to put a bow on his career by finally helping his nation to the knockout stages.

Yet, if Tunisia’s midfield is a clear strength, there are clear question marks regarding the team’s goalkeeping. Aymen Dahmen, the 25-year-old CS Sfaxien netminder, has done an OK job throughout this calendar year, but Tunisian goalkeepers have been notorious for producing embarrassing mistakes in recent major tournaments, and Dahmen’s inexperience on this stage may unnerve supporters.

Tunisia also lack an out-and-out target man. Khazri has deputised as a striker over the last three years, but the former Sunderland winger does not have the size to challenge centre-halves in the air.

The final and most problematic uncertainty with regard to the Tunisian national team is coach Kadri, who will be one of two coaches in Qatar that have never played a kick of senior football in the first division in any country (Canada’s John Herdman is the other).

Kadri is seen as a limited manager that will accommodate the experienced players in his squad, take instruction from higher-ups in the federation, and ultimately fail to implement the kind of game plans Tunisia would need to upset the European heavyweights in their group.

Source: Al Jazeera