As Gareth Southgate’s England squad appears to take shape with concluding pre-June friendlies – selected prudently against an enfeebled Dutch and Italian duo – and the World Cup countdown ticks ominously under 90 days in the diplomatically strained streets of Moscow, the endurance of journalistic analysis heightens to yet greater poignance. Opening Group G opponents for the Three Lions, Tunisia, serve as an aptly resurgent North African foil at this late, yet publicly insecure, stage of proceedings; at least for the perpetually self-afflicting modern-day Angles an ever-susceptible period of unforeseen tumult and doubt. The opponents construed so complacently as a mere footnote in history to a Belgian procession and English self-salvage, however, will harbour perfectly rational ambitions of a first knockout stage qualification – of acute importance after four prior entries defined by mediocrity – against those reasonably depicted amongst UEFA’s contingent as far administratively superior.
Formulating a stern preparation against the culturally akin Iranians and Turkish, climactically alike Portuguese and Spanish and prior English conquerors in the highly pragmatic Costa Ricans, Les Aigles de Carthage (نسور قرطاج, or the Eagles of Carthage), spearheaded by as-yet unbeaten senior helmsman Nabil Maâloul and Fédération Tunisienne de Football (FTF) President Wadii Jarii, have certainly taken no liberties with a nation’s footballing aspirations.
Unfortunately, it has taken until the past two years’ successful qualification attempts for the nation to return to an eminent international pedigree. Made evident by their past experience of the World Cup cycle – cast to the wayside, unsurprisingly, as the vaulted elite protected their own concerns, and in three consecutive finals appearances between 1998 and 2006 warming up against destitute post-Soviet Georgian, Slovenian, Serb-Montenegrin and Belorussian outfits, sub-par Austrian, Chilean, Danish and Uruguayan squads and the long-barren Wales and Norway – the scene’s structure was set defiantly to repress those harbouring ambitions beyond their means. Fortunately, amongst a landscape more competitive, and critically cohesive, than ever before, the modern bargaining power of those still derided as ‘lesser’ mechanisms in vast regions of jaundiced fellowship boasts the ability to schedule fixtures not only against some of the globe’s preceding administrations, but also in favourable conditions; their 27 March fixture against Costa Rica presumably, from an English cynic’s perception, hosted at Nice’s Allianz Riviera stadium to evoke memories of an infamous Icelandic defeat two summers ago, while their Spanish meeting, in which they, as every opponent, expect to be worked unscrupulously by the insatiable interplay of Julen Lopetegui’s side, will be based in a non-World Cup venue in Krasnodar, only nine days prior to their opening fixture.
Such luxuries do not come without their obvious hindrances, however. For all of the acclimatisation of June fixtures in Switzerland (vs Turkey) and the North Caucasus region, there comes the concern that these efforts will in fact prove fruitless, not least given the apparent environmental advantage that the aforementioned Northern European bloc hold inherently over any Tunisian – other than winger Wahbi Khazri, the innocent victim of an icy previous tenure on Wearside in all senses of the term, of course.
What little they can do at this late stage, Maâloul and Jarii – characters we will soon unveil – will feel justified in the proclamation that they have attempted. The socio-economic disparity between their administration – that of a nation compromising only roughly a fifth of England’s population, and boasting a nominal GDP comparable, according to United Nations and International Monetary Fund statistics, to that of Turkmenistan, Jordan or the Democratic Republic of Congo – and those of the gilded UEFA constituents would surely dictate, tempering these efforts, that the gap is too far bridge in the extent of just six friendlies.
Theirs was, after all, a relatively nervy qualification phase. Even run close by similarly arid North African rivals Mauritania in the Second Round play-off – running out 2-1 winners in either leg, but only establishing unassailable leads after the 68th and 84th minutes, respectively – their Third Round group exploits, when drawn as first seeds against the DR Congo, Guinea and Libya, encountered pervasive threats; particularly from the DRC, constructed on the foundations of the naturalised offensive firepower of Cédric Bakambu, Neeskens Kebano, Gaël Kakuta, Benik Afobe and Yannick Bolasie. Never exactly individually prolific – their 11 goals shared between eight players – their mental stature regardless defied all questions to assert defensive solidity; only four goals conceded, one to Guinea’s sole genuinely elite figurehead Naby Keïta and the remainder to the DRC in highly competitive tussles just edged, particularly dramatically when 2-0 down in Kinshasa with 15 minutes remaining before firing a two-minute double salvo capped by a wondrous piece of ingenuity from stellar midfielder Youssef Msakni to set up Anice Badri, and top spot with it. Under the Pole Henryk Kasperczak, formerly noted here for his role in the revival of Polish fortunes, interspersed by tenures with the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Senegal and Mali on two occasions, the squad forged a reputation on rearguard action, with a ten-match unbeaten run, dominated by World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, between November 2015 and January 2017 seeing only three goals conceded, or if discounting the Mauritania play-off just a single goal in eight matches. His regime, however, was just as quickly deposed following a disappointing quarter-final exit, in a fairly passive 2-0 defeat to historic minnows Burkina Faso, at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, as it appeared to be reaching its crowning glory. Ultimately, fears of both his longevity and attitude for the upcoming Congolese summits forced him out in favour of long-term national team servant Maâloul – a player, assistant, caretaker and 2004 Olympics manager before undertaking the final frontier – to embrace the burden of Les Aigles’ most tangible grasp of World Cup football for over a decade.
Perhaps the profiteers of regional instability, considering their competitive consistency over a great many years regardless of World Cup qualification or not, the Tunisians’ return to premier international competition is by no means consequential. Take DR Congo, for example, and you may arrive at an intriguing conclusion which states that a nation of far greater geographical and demographic expanse, and arguably possessing superior footballing fervour from the slums of Kinshasa than could ever be harboured in the comparatively gentrified Tunis, may have seen a role reversal in qualification results had they either not invested so heavily on second-generation European Union migrants, or not stalled when the policy reached paramount importance (Arthur Masuaku, Giannelli Imbula and Elias Kachunga, born in France, Belgium and Germany respectively, possessing only one cumulative cap to date). Equally, however, one cannot accuse the Congolese administration of apathy; targeting a first World Cup finals appearance in the post-totalitarian Zaire era, they perhaps never had a more tangible route to such achievement. Never as starkly reliant on this cynical interpretation of citizenship rulings to explore their burgeoning global diaspora, the Tunisians have worked closely and been aided favourably by a continued relationship with their prior French colonists; not least from the trade, and increasingly migratory, routes that run roughly 500 miles from Tunis to Marseille, and so forth.
This tendency towards modesty, seldom greeting the mass commercial stages of Europe until the 21st century and yet to truly establish themselves here, is typical of long-held Tunisian autonomous desires.
Elsewhere, the common stereotype of Africa’s footballing, and wider sporting, enterprises – perpetually embattled with allegations of corruption, cronyism and incurable removal from the reality of their constituent public – shares very few similarities with that of the today’s FTF; itself headed by a forming footballer, as opposed to yet another corporate puppet or political chancer. Jarii, the retired ex-semi-professional in question, plied his playing trade, alongside employment as a local doctor, at Sports Union Ben Guerdane (USBG) in the arid southeast of the nation and was later elevated to the club’s presidency at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps also poignant, given both his playing and administrative career was dominated by time in Ben Gardane – the nation’s most distant city from capital Tunis, and otherwise notable for its proximity to the politically volatile Libyan border while embroiled in World War Two’s Tunisian Campaign and more recently alarming figures related to Islamic State radicalisation – Jarii’s promotion to the internal hierarchy of the entire Tunisian establishment asserted a break from cultural tradition; Tunis’ rule over proceedings personified by the domestic stranglehold of 27-time (soon to be 28) Ligue Professionnelle 1 champions and 2011 CAF Champions League victors Espérance Sportive (ES) de Tunis, alongside 13-time victors Club Africain, where rival cities including Sfax and Sousse have experienced a considerable 21st century decline.
For all the hailing of Les Aigles’ recent accomplishments, there is nonetheless a long-held distrust directed towards Jarii. Accused of establishing what effectively stands as a dictatorship in his position through streamlining the democratic processes of the FTF and actively seeking the consultation of a highly selective flank of supporters perceived as themselves unsuitable, Jarii’s divisive approach to stewardship even led to ES Tunis and Etoile Sportive du Sahel’s pointed threat of withdrawal from FTF constitutions in 2015, before a three-day strike from Club Africain players late last year. Further extended in the past fortnight to a “communiqué-petition” undersigned by five federal members of the 12-man FTF executive committee demanding recompense for the contempt Jarii showed to the constitution – accusing him, in a report published by national news agency Tunis Afrique Presse, of deliberately side-lining them while disbanding an emergency meeting on March 3, in the first formal contact since a meeting on December 9 2017 – his position has rarely appeared a happy one in his six years, to date, of service.
The saving grace of any apparent despot, however, may be his ambition. Displaying overriding pragmatism in his press releases, his tone has entirely conflicted that of the nation’s bankrollers, but attempted to temper expectations, perceivably, to the hope of just a single win in Russia this summer;
“Tunisians will be happy if we win a match, as [the history of] our only World Cup victory goes back a very long time.”
“Some call for the passage to the second round as an objective, I want to tell them that we are in the same group as England and Belgium, and that to my knowledge these two teams are above Tunisia. If we pass it would be a surprise.”
Not exactly replicative of the aspiration of lauded Africans preceding him; Roger Milla spirit, while answering the call of Cameroonian President Paul Biya prior to the 1990 World Cup to make a triumphant reprisal of his prolific exploits at the age of 38, et al., Jarii may be right to downplay his nation’s opportunity at unprecedented glory, but to utter these sentiments so publicly, in the midst of widespread angst, you have to question his wisdom. As aforementioned, he is certainly no diplomat.
Perhaps Jarii’s self-sacrificing tenure is the defining factor that has delivered Les Aigles to the zenith of continental rankings, and 24th within official present FIFA algorithms. Granted, in the opposing Elo Ratings, argued by some as more representative of reality – questionable, given England are presently riding high at seventh – they are below Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt and Cameroon, with the latter not even attending Russia this summer, but the recent achievements of the North African outfit are seldom dogged by an equal examination to which these counterparts are subjected. In all, they have – albeit without greatly overt joy – manipulated the system in such a manner that they can be seen to even appropriate the ‘underdog’ category when amassing results to qualify for a tangible World Cup tournament. Their competitive consistency, owed to relative administrative and managerial continuity – from Kasperczak’s first tenure in the late 1990s to today, employing 13 different managers over 15 sackings, resignations or caretaker reversals, a figure only bettered by Senegal’s ten and Egypt’s 12 where the Super Eagles (18 over 27 regime changes), Atlas Lions (17 over 18) and Indomitable Lions (20, and set for a twenty-first) far exceed such a turnover – stands, reasonably, as one of the continent’s most fearsome, and has rightfully seen them to every one of the 13 Africa Cup of Nations editions and four, now, of the six World Cups since.
Unspectacular, if temporarily expressive, for the vast majority of this era – achieving, in the Cup of Nations, runners-up and fourth place finishes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, before being crowned victors in 2004, while their ten cumulative tournament victories in these appearances almost outstrip the eleven elsewhere achieved in 23 years – the Tunisians perhaps have seldom exceeded perceived limitations. Their victory in 2004 even features caveats; enjoying home advantage on the decade’s anniversary of the nation’s second accommodation of the event, and in a depleted field after Côte D’Ivoire and Ghana’s qualification failures, never setting the tournament alight en route to a first, and to date only, major international honour, with only a single victory coming by more than one goal, and only a sole other greeted with a clean sheet. Perhaps this platitude is innate of the Tunisian, quite conceivably even North African, philosophy – Algeria, and prior to the catalytic eruption of Mohamed Salah’s sudden stardom, Egypt, never exactly achieving the cult status of Milla’s Cameroon, the Nigerians of the 1990s, Senegalese of 2002 or Ghanaians of 2010 – in which defensive fortitude has prospered as the personifying characteristic, and tactically astute football has led them to measured triumph.
Under Maâloul, and most certainly under Jarii, there is little assumption rank will be definitively broken, but perhaps adapted to a global status quo. As Majed Achek of Tunisie-Foot references, within Maâloul’s favoured 4-2-3-1 philosophy;
“The full-backs are encouraged to attack and on the left Ali Maâloul of Al Ahly is key because of how much he contributes going forward. The midfield [is] dominated by two hard-working ball-winners in Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, with the ‘MKN’ trio of Youssef Msakni, Wahbi Khazri and Naïm Sliti adding flair. Msakni, who plays in Qatar, is a tremendous talent and often carries the team.”
While also proving capable of reverting to a more defensive 4-3-2-1 when posed with opponents demanding the respect Jarii appears so willing to bow to, Maâloul generally appeared inclined to free his side from the shackles of defensive solidity in the high-intensity demands of the qualification process, but whether he will deem such an approach worthwhile against the striking prowess of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Dries Mertens and Raheem Sterling, et al., would be cast in doubt – if not for an post-World Cup draw assertion in Moscow that “we will try to win our games by playing in our own way and control the match”. By no means aspiring to be shrinking violets, then.
Unused 1978 World Cup squad member Mokhtar Hasni at momentarily first division Belgian club R.A.A. Louviéroise aside, becoming one of the first Tunisians – alongside Liège-bound striker Jameleddine Limam – to break the threshold of European football after their appearances at the 1988 Olympics, former Hannover 96 defector Maâloul may be depicted as another first in the FTF establishment; setting the precedent, potentially, for an increasing contingent of exports to return bound to a reformist philosophy. Albeit in only a two-season stay in reunification-revelling Lower Saxony, the now-balding, bloated 55-year-old would defy preconceptions and become exposed to a sport almost incomparable to that to which he was so acclimatised, and perhaps deeply entrenched as a physically abrasive 27-year-old midfielder – arguably tempering his otherwise extensive career at ES Tunis to offer more depth to future coaching credentials.
If impressing as genial, and seldom far from a Cheshire Cat-esque grin, off the pitch and reverting between all-observing and acutely impassioned upon it, Maâloul’s innate managerial dynamism has reflected kindly on Les Aigles. His close relationship with a trusted squad, alongside this presence, differs markedly from predecessor Kasperczak, whose emotional reservation, perhaps instilled by the inherent approach of a Communist regime to those of his playing generation, was almost permanently etched on his wearied expression, and could not be reasonably argued as anything other than a revitalising feature in the current crop of Carthage representatives, who for matches against Iran and Costa Rica are largely those who ensured qualification with a stalemate against Libya last November; Kasperczak favourites Hamza Lahmar, Ahmed Akaïchi and long-term servant Aymen Abdennour seemingly each exiled as part of a commendable selection policy that values playing time ahead of experience.
Though certainly idealistic, sheer meritocracy has seldom proven a faultless philosophy, particularly on the global stage. Especially posed with a talent pool as shallow as the North Africans’ – not solely in terms of population size or socio-economic development, but also hindered by the adjoining popularity of handball and basketball in the nation – consistency can often be misconstrued and inevitably, given an injury crisis, one may have to undermine authority by surrendering to those previously cast aside. For all of his talent – made unquestionable in the qualification campaign – Msakni, for example, could so easily find himself on the end of an unyielding refinement if he were failing to procure game time at an elite-level European club like Abdennour at Marseille, as opposed to setting alight the Qatari Super League (21 goals in 19 league matches for Doha-based Al-Duhail SC). Nor, indeed, does the policy seem indiscriminate; Yohan Benalouane, who in the past has seen a conflict of interest between his birthplace France and Tunisian lineage confuse his position, perhaps fortunate to receive his first senior international call-up, at the age of 30, for upcoming friendlies after playing only four times this season for Leicester City. Generally, however, those in power will point to the rising crop of Ligue 1, Ligue 2 and Belgian Pro League talents bursting through, at the very last opening prior to Russia’s beckoning, in Nice goalkeeper Mouez Hassan, Gent centre-back Dylan Bronn and the midfield trio of Marseille’s creative livewire Saîf-Eddine Khaoui, Montpellier’s robust anchor Ellyes Skhiri and Nice’s versatile Bassem Srarfi, who with just one cumulative cap to their names at this juncture, will attempt to seize the coming months under Maâloul’s tutelage.
Their obvious philosophical discrepancies aside, Jarii and Maâloul have acted as revitalising features of a nation that, on the surface, appears still unsure of its position both on its own continental and the wider global platform. The perpetual tendencies that undermine their relationship, however, are perhaps ubiquitously inevitable of the egotism of ex-professionals in such pivotal positions. Jarii’s influence has unquestionably been felt far more obtrusively that is necessary, and for his unflinching intentions he has been made – eventually – accountable to the extent that, upon the sacking of a formerly trusted figure in Kasperczak, he had little option but to revert to the option who most encapsulated regional sentiments.
Fundamentally, neither as a player nor indeed as a man did Kasperczak ever command the respect of the national populous as Maâloul does, and as the latter’s early coaching prowess showed, this fed through to the most vital aspect of the position’s holy trinity in the perception of their management. Inevitably, the latter faces a much-liberated task compared to that of his predecessor, and from a half-assured qualification could scarcely have faltered; this summer, instead, will prove his stature forevermore. Whether this can be construed as fair on any working individual is questionable, but such are the merciless caveats of the industry upon which he entered knowingly an entire 37 years ago, and still revels in today.
Allegiance, as evident, remains fundamental here, and keen not to let tumult conspire into feudalism, Jarii has been wise to instil a known quantity. As proven by a visibly insecure reaction to the live-broadcast Tunisian television phone-in of foremost national ex-footballing icon, not to mention former Minister of Youth and Sports, Tarak Dhiab last year, he remains the effective opponent of those within the sport, and if plans go awry in Russia, it is doubtless who will be found primarily culpable.
Jarii, however, is not solely responsible for his low approval ratings, it must be stressed. Hostility has defined the perception of almost all establishments, and their constituent figures, in the entire post-Arab Spring national era. Having deposed totalitarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ripped up the constitution in the 2011 Tunisian Revolution – hailed by Western press as a major accomplishment of civil resistance while forcing Ben Ali to extradition to Saudi Arabia under numerous counts of mass corruption and drug trafficking – intended democratisation and liberalisation has fallen on the swords, most recently, of austerity measures under Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to counter economic stagnation. Public frustrations, most pointedly at the January 1 Finance Act, have spilled over for the entirety of this year, to date, to continued and widespread protests defying the wholly uncompromising demands made of the working population, who are yet to realise the true benefits of a purportedly egalitarian society. Dogged by democratic disillusion to such an extent that this series of protests acts as little more than an expectation, Tunisian politics, through its democratisation, has unchained both the right for opponents to chastise the present regime, but also for many features of old to find sympathy within the confines of parliament.
"[elements of the old regime have] managed to reconsolidate power in the interests of the native ruling elites and international capital" - World Socialist Web Site, 2018
Though not universal, this upheaval has been societally overwhelming and provoked inevitable condemnation from Chahed, who has reiterated sentiments that “2018 will be the last difficult year for Tunisians” – ironic, considering the clamour that would otherwise erupt in honour of presence at the world’s foremost sporting summit at any stage of relative political stability.
One, resultantly, may be tempted to brandish Tunisia as the most insecure and ill-prepared of establishments entering Russian borders this summer – the hosts, perhaps, aside. For a state, and sporting administration, that has been liberated from colonial rule for, as officially ratified, an entire 61 years, structural progression has been tenuous, and has, in truth, overshadowed all sporting exploits hence. Their retraction from the innumerable deliverances of imperialism has been unfortunate, and comparable to few others across the vast and heavily mistreated continent. As with the diverse decoration of pre, post or part socialist nations historically throughout the World Cup’s longevity, alongside the aforementioned unlikely feats of several West African squads and perhaps even the perpetual suspicions of power abuses across South America – not least in 1978 – politics has rarely proven the distraction some may wish to condemn it, often conversely featuring as a poetic undertone to the defiance of adversity. Jarii, resultantly, can hardly be condemned for attempted to protect the FTF from this maelstrom ploughing forth around him, though with questionable actions to achieve this, and I’m sure would be relieved solely to emerge from the tournament without major national discredit. No martyr for revolution himself, his will not be a message of revolutionary inspiration in the potential event of – dare I say it – a result against the English, per se, yet Maâloul is more of a liability in this respect. Whether he will face a conspired muzzling is yet to be seen, but for the sake of free speech and the spirit thread through the fabric of the tournament and sport itself, and always welcome to further weaving, I dearly wish not.
Quite ironically, seeing their way through equally as many Prime Ministers as national team managers post-2011 has only inspired the Tunisian populous to further defy their means, while also testifying that the stability military dictatorships across West Africa appear to profess is indeed hollow. This being their first democratic-era World Cup appearance, the allegory will be that, effectively, of the emergence of a new nation – albeit one featuring many cultural relapses from the 2000s – onto such a grand stage, of course further intensifying the intrinsic sentiment of Group G alongside Panama’s first ever successful qualification. Although democracy from Tunis, and especially externally, is an imperfect beast with which to grapple, the sporting administration where the public’s influence is presently restrained has not yet belied them. If the upcoming tournament can serve, by any means, as a temporary popular relief from seemingly irredeemable social discord, and potentially as a beacon of future sporting aspiration, then this summer could indeed by a turning point in Tunisian football. Regardless of patriotic allegiances come mid-June, theirs should be a plight unilaterally set aside and a shared passion celebrated on an unrivalled stage; for all of the misfortune that afflicts each participating entity, I have little doubt that the World Cup, as ever, will achieve such optimistic prophecies. For the sake of a nation vulnerable in its reintroduction to the global fraternity, we can, indeed, but hope.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!