World Cup 2018: Introducing Tunisia – Everything you Need to Know about England’s Opponents

With the domestic season done and dusted, trophies handed out and awards accepted, attention now turns to Russia and the impending World Cup 2018. England’s squad announcement received little fanfare and in many ways the pressure is off Gareth Southgate’s men. Little is expected of his young charges, but with a group that features minnows Panama and Tunisia, qualification should be a given, but unfortunately the story of English football is never that straightforward. We’ve already brought you the lowdown on Panama, so now it’s the turn of Tunisia…

Tunisia’s national sport is in fact football, followed by handball with which they have experienced enormous success. The national handball team have won the coveted African Cup a record 10 times, their most recent success coming this year defeating Egypt in the final. In football terms Tunisia last tasted success in the African Cup of Nations in 2004, which was held in their homeland. They have a Premier League, named the Tunisian Ligue Professionelle 1, the most celebrated clubs being Espérance Sportive de Tunis, Club Africain and Étoile Sportive du Sahel.

The Place…

Situated in Northern Africa, Tunisia is a culturally rich country. Lying immediately south of Italy and Malta, Tunisia has a Mediterranean coastline and is bordered by Libya to the East and Algeria to the West. Travel is not advised in proximity to the South due to the threat of kidnappings and an Islamic extremist presence in the area. Once the stronghold of The Carthaginian Empire and sworn enemy of the Roman Empire, Carthage was very much an ancient powerhouse of a city.

In more recent times, Tunisia fell under French Imperial rule, gaining independence in 1956, following which it became a one-party state for over thirty years under the guidance of President Habib Bourguiba. A forward-thinking leader he established rights for women unheard of in any Arab state while fighting the cause against Islamic extremism. His reign ended in the late eighties and in more recent times Tunisia has suffered neglect, with a depressed economy and little in the way of tourism.

Famous for…

As mentioned Tunisia appears to have fallen into some disrepair in recent times, however, the capital Tunis is forging the revival. The ruins of the ancient city of Carthage sit nestled by the Mediterranean Sea, however, the impressive and well-preserved El Djem Amphitheater where Gladiators once went into battle, is considered one of the greatest examples of amphitheater architecture in the world and certainly Tunisia’s tourist hotspot.

There are also a range of golden sandy beaches and when added to the year-round climate and affordable hotel prices with a modest cost of living, Tunisia would make for an excellent travel destination, similar to Morocco for example, but it must be stressed the necessary precautions should be taken and seek government travel advice before planning a trip.

The Flag…

The red and white flag of Tunisia is one of the world’s oldest, having been around since 1835. The flag is similar to its Turkish counterpart in much owing to the period of colonization by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. The bright red is a common and traditional colour that symbolises Islam and reflects the resistance against Turkish supremacy. The white embodies peace, while the disk embodies the nation as the sun, while the crescent and five-pointed star represent the unity of all Muslims and the Five Pillars of Islam.

The Team…

So how did Tunisia negotiate qualification for their fifth World Cup Finals appearance? Well, Tunisia currently holds their highest ever FIFA world ranking position of 14th only one place behind Group G opponents England. Tunisia secured a 0-0 draw with neighbours Libya and with DR Congo the only team that could catch them, a point was enough, making Congo’s 3-1 victory over Guinea meaningless.

Known by the wonderful title of ‘The Eagles of Carthage’, they’ll certainly be well organised defensively and have a solid team spirit, but lack the attacking quality at this level to really cause any major upsets. However, the 2-2 draw with Portugal earlier this week suggests they’ll be no pushovers and England will need to be wary of their counterattacking threat. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they took a point off one of the big boys.

The Manager…

Head Coach Nabil Maâloul has been at the helm since April overseeing the final stages of qualification and becoming only the second Tunisian coach to lead his country to the finals. He had managed them previously in 2013 but failed to find a route to the 2014 finals in Brazil. He was previously in charge of Kuwait and had a modest playing career that did see him collect 74 international caps scoring 11 goals in the process.

He has recently caused some controversy in his homeland for introducing a number of new faces to what is generally considered a well drilled and tightly knit squad. Much of the consternation revolves around the fact that the players that achieved qualification are deemed worthy of following that up with a run in the finals. One of those new faces includes Leicester City defender Yohan Benalouane, and the emphasis is very much on adding a bit European experience to his squad.

Yohan Benalouane

Setting up in a 4-3-3 formation, Tunisia are a technically sound team, that likes to move the ball quickly, England and Belgium’s pace up front are likely to cause problems however. On England, Maâloul had this to say,

The English have understood recently that they had to change their ideas about the game and follow the evolution of world football… Things have progressed enormously. And on top of the new style they have some very strong individuals. Players such as Sterling, Kane, Alli and Lingard can change a game at any moment. They are among the favourites for this tournament.”

The Players…

With the supremely talented creative force and star man Youssef Msakni ruled out through injury, things look tough for Tunisia. They’ll instead be looking to the leadership qualities of the aforementioned Benalouane as centre-back Aymen Abdennour who many of you will know from his time at Monaco and Valencia, has struggled for games on loan at Marseille and has surprisingly been overlooked.

Elsewhere from an attacking perspective, and with limited striking options, goals will have to come from the midfield and the onus will certainly be on Sunderland’s very own Wahbi Khazri, who may well occupy an attacking number 10 type role or newly capped French-born Seifeddine Khaoui. Another name to keep an eye on is Naim Sliti who has a few tricks up his sleeve, but all in all, goals will be a major problem for Tunisia.

Wahbi Khazri

Wahbi Khazri

The Fixtures…

Tunisia vs England – Volgograd – Monday, June 18 – 19:00 – BBC

Belgium vs Tunisia – Moscow – Saturday, June 23 – 13:00pm – BBC

Panama vs Tunisia – Saransk – Thursday, June 28 – 19:00 – ITV

The Odds…

Tunisia is around 500/1 to raise the trophy. Odds of a draw with England look slightly more realistic, if you are having a punt you’ll get 7/2. And a draw with Belgium seems a distinct possibility, 4/1.  Tunisia are 5/1 to qualify and make it out of the group.

*Note odds correct at time of publishing – Paddy Power