Wednesday 12 July 2017, 12:00

Maaloul: I’m optimistic about reaching Russia

  • Tunisia sit joint top of their World Cup qualifying group with six points, level with Congo DR

  • Nabil Maaloul’s men beat Guinea and Libya in opening games

  • They have their sights set on a fifth appearance at the global finals

Nabil Maaloul has played a part in a number of Tunisian football’s most remarkable feats, from fulfilling the role of assistant coach under Roger Lemerre when Les Aigles de Carthage captured their first and only CAF Africa Cup of Nations to guiding Tunis-based Esperance to a historic treble in 2011.

The experienced coach spoke to about his previous stints with the Tunisian national set-up and his team’s chances of booking a berth at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

“This is the fifth time I’ve been involved with Tunisia,” explained the 54-year-old. “I was Roger Lemerre’s assistant when we won the Cup of Nations at home in 2004. I also helped the U-20 side to qualify for the Athens Olympics that same year, and when I joined back up with Lemerre in 2006, I got to work with those same players again.

“I then coached several clubs, before returning to take charge of the senior team myself in 2013. And so this is actually my fifth experience coaching with Tunisia, which I was already so familiar with as a player, having represented my country at every age category. I know the set-up inside out, which I think gives me a real advantage in the current circumstances.”

Maaloul began his latest spell at the helm with a tricky 2019 Cup of Nations qualifier against Egypt. “The team had been going through a tough time,” he said. “Thank goodness, we won my first match in charge. That victory over Egypt was essential for our Cup of Nations qualifying hopes as well as our morale, and we could then turn our attention to the two 2018 World Cup campaign matches that await us in September.”

Decisive duels The Tunisians began their march to Russia with two wins, versus Guinea at home and Libya, in a match played in Algeria on security grounds. They currently share the lead of Group A with a dangerous and determined Congo DR side, with whom they will lock horns twice in September.

“The Leopards have made huge progress over the past few years,” noted Maaloul. They have players on the books of top European clubs. They’re our main competition in the group. Each time I’ve come up against Vita Club and TP Mazembe as a coach, I’ve been able to see the power and talent of Congolese footballers up close.

“They’ve got massive potential and experienced internationals, and they’re ahead of us in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – we need to show them respect. But let’s not forget that Tunisia have a strong squad with quality players as well. One thing’s for sure: the two matches against Congo DR will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the group.”

Tunisia’s upcoming fixtures: *1 September: Tunisia-Congo DR 5 September: Congo DR-Tunisia 2 October: Guinea-Tunisia 6 October: *Tunisia-Libya

All of the African coaches involved in the Russia 2018 qualifying campaign have spoken of the crucial period in September, when their teams will play two games in the space of a few days. With around two months to go before Tunisia’s first encounter with the Congolese in Rades, Maaloul gave his take on the situation.

“It’s not the short gap between the two games that worries me, but rather the physical condition of our players. They’ll still be in the early stages of their club season – there’ll be transfers and other things to deal with.

“We’ve laid out a training programme and we’ll keep an eye on our players when they’re with their clubs to make sure they’re completely ready for this critical stage in our campaign. We’re not going to leave anything to chance. Given the short amount of time we’ll have to prepare the players ourselves, from 28 August to 1 September, we’ll select the squad based on their form at the time.”

After having competed at three consecutive World Cups (France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006), the North Africans missed out on the last two editions of the illustrious tournament (South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014). The players and staff, including Maaloul, now have their hearts set on returning to the global stage.

“It’s not just my dream; it’s the dream of the Tunisian people and all those who work with the national side,” he said. “As the team’s coach, I’m optimistic about our chances of qualifying.”