Sunday 12 November 2017, 00:46

Eagles of Carthage take off for Russia

  • Tunisia back at the World Cup for the first time in 12 years

  • A goalless draw at home to Libya took them through

  • The jubilant players spoke to after the match

The people of Tunisia will long remember 11 November 2017, the day on which their national team secured a goalless draw with Libya to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ after a 12-year absence.

Present at Argentina 1978, France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, Tunisia had to sit out South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, a double failure they have atoned for by qualifying for Russia 2018.

In marking the Eagles of Carthage’s return to the world finals, spoke to the players after they clinched qualification.

An explosion of joy When the final whistle sounded at the end of Saturday’s match in Rades, the Tunisia players celebrated with the 50,000-strong crowd by going on a long lap of honour. Relief gave way to elation as the heroes of the day soaked up the adulation from the packed stands.

Reactions When spoke to the Tunisia players after the match, midfielder Wahbi Khazri beamed with pride. “Tunisia haven’t qualified for the World Cup for a long time, and thanks to our fine performances we’re going to be back on the big stage," he said. "The Tunisian people have been waiting for this day for a long time and we’ve worked very hard with our clubs to make it happen. We’re delighted to have qualified and we’d like to dedicate the campaign to all the people of Tunisia.”

The Rennes player added: “We’ve got to work on our weak points and develop our strengths before the finals. We’ve got a good side and some talented players, and we shouldn’t be going to Russia just to make up the numbers. We have to try and go as far as we can.”

For defender Ali Maaloul, Saturday’s events made up for the disappointment of being on the losing side with Egypt’s Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League against Wydad Casablanca: “That’s football. I lost a final with Al Ahly, but today I have the immense joy of qualifying for the World Cup with the national team. The match against Libya was not easy, but thanks to God we got the job done and we qualified.”

A mainstay of the midfield, Ghilane Chaalani was one of the architects of Tunisia’s return to the world finals. Looking back on a long campaign, he said: “Every match was tough, and the hardest of all was the last one against Libya, because there was so much pressure on us. Thankfully, we finally managed to get the point we needed to qualify.”

"The match against Libya wasn’t easy because of the pressure," right-back Hamdi Nagguez, who featured in nearly all the games, explained. “ We missed a couple of chances but we got what we wanted in the end, which was to qualify for the World Cup after 12 years away and make the people of Tunisia happy.”

Nagguez added: “Tunisia didn’t lose a single match in the qualifiers and I think the draw against Congo DR in Kinshasa was the turning point. We’re happy because we’re going to the World Cup, which is every player’s dream.”

Meanwhile, creative midfielder Mohamed Amine Ben Amor struggled to contain himself. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see all this joy on Tunisian faces," he said. "It’s been a long time since we last qualified for the World Cup, but we deserve our place after all these difficult matches.”

Speaking to the media, national team coach Nabil Maaloul said: “My congratulations to the people of Tunisia for this successful qualification campaign. I knew the match against Libya would be tough and that the pressure would be on us and not our opponents. The most important thing is to qualify. Tunisia showed what they are capable of when they played Guinea.”

Hopes for the Final Draw For the majority of the Tunisia players, the ideal draw would pitch them against the world’s biggest teams, which they believe would give them the perfect platform on which to show what they can do.

Giving his opinion,Chaalani said: “Everyone wants to come up against Messi.” It was a view echoed by Ben Amor. “I want to play Argentina and Leo Messi,” he said.

Expressing a different view, Nagguez said: “I hope we end up in Brazil’s group.” While Ali Maaloul wants to rub shoulders with The Best FIFA Men’s Player 2017: “I want to play Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.”

The stat 0 - The number of matches Tunisia lost en route to qualifying for Russia 2018. In the first of their six games in Group A in the Africa Zone, the Eagles of Carthagebeat Guinea at home. They then saw off Libya on neutral ground in Algeria and Congo DR at home before returning from Kinshasa with a valuable point. Then came an emphatic win in Guinea, followed by the home draw with Libya that secured them a place at next year’s world finals.

Did you know? Tunisia are the only one of the African qualifiers for Russia 2018 to have had two coaches during the campaign. Henri Kasperczak was the man in charge for the Eagles of Carthage’sfirst two matches, with Nabil Maaloul then taking over and skilfully steering the side to the finals.