(Reuters) – Tunisia must break a 40-year hoodoo if they are to make a lasting impression on the World Cup in Russia.
The Eagles of Carthage became the first African country to win a match at a World Cup tournament when they beat Mexico in their opening game in Argentina in 1978. But they have failed to register a victory at the finals since.
Having qualified for the first time since 2006, the path ahead again looks tough for Tunisia, despite their highest-ever 14th place in the world rankings.
They are due to play Belgium and England in Group G and have lost their stand-out playmaker Youssef Msakni to injury.
With the help of Msakni’s goals and creativity, Tunisia went unbeaten in their qualifying campaign, winning their group by a point from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The turning point proved to be a late two-goal recovery in Kinshasa to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw against the DRC.
After losing veteran coach Henryk Kasperczak early in the campaign, Nabil Maaloul, who himself was fired during Tunisia’s failed attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, came back to steer the North Africans to Russia.
Maaloul — an assistant under Frenchman Roger Lemerre when Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations in 2004 and one of only a few African coaches of teams from the continent — must find an answer to the absence of Msakni whose role as playmaker is likely to be taken by captain Wahbi Khazri.
After a largely disappointing spell with England’s Sunderland, Khazri will lead out a team made up mostly of players from the Tunisian domestic league and only a few who have pursued their careers in Europe.
The Tunisian football authorities persuaded a handful of French-born players to pledge their allegiance to the country of their parents’ birth in order to bolster the squad for the World Cup.
They will be tested by some of the world’s top players such as Belgium’s Eden Hazard and England’s Harry Kane. But having gone unbeaten in qualifying and won friendlies in March against World Cup-bound Iran and Costa Rica, they will be fancied to beat Group G’s other team Panama.
(Reporting by William Schomberg, editing by Ed Osmond)