By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Tunisia were handed a relatively easy passage to their fifth World Cup but they went through the African preliminaries with a proficiency that augurs well for next year's finals in Russia.
The north African country - whose size and population of nearly 12 million belies a regular seat at African soccer's head table – won their group ahead of Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea to qualify for the first time since 2006.
Tunisia were the first African country to win a match at a World Cup tournament – beating Mexico 3-1 in Rosario in 1978 – but in 11 games since at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 finals they have failed to emerge victorious.
Winning a match will be the primary ambition for the team, with a place in the second round a loftier aspiration.
Tunisia were unbeaten in their qualifying group but the campaign was not without its disruptions.
After winning the first two matches at the end of 2016, Tunisia were uninspiring at the African Nations Cup in Gabon in January, after which veteran coach Henryk Kasperczak left.
Nabil Maaloul, fired during the abortive 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, returned and two wins and two draws from their last four group games saw Tunisia win their group by a point from the Congolese.
Unlike the other African teams in Russia, Tunisia still draw the bulk of their players from the domestic league.
Their best player Youssef Msakni is little known outside the region. He plays in Qatar but could move to a bigger league if the form he showed in the preliminaries is repeated at the finals.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)