Rebirth of a footballing nation Part II: Eagles of Carthage qualify for World Cup 2018

Here is the story of Tunisia who are now travelling to Russia for The World Cup 2018.

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The World Cup 2018 will be the biggest world cup in terms of numbers. The qualifiers are over and the draw is just waiting for its full conclusion on December 1. We continue with our “Rebirth of a footballing nation” here, with another resurrected African team.

In the early 60’s Africa was seeing a rise of a new footballing power from North Africa after Tunisia became the first ever African team since Egypt to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rome 1960. Although the first-ever Olympic experience was a most forgetful for the North Africans, they could take pride in the fact that they went down fighting against South American heavyweights Argentina in their second group game that finished 1-2.

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The momentum for qualifying was well reproduced by the Men in Red as they qualified for their first African Cup of Nations finishing 3rd in 1962. The Carthaginians, however, failed to reciprocate their form in the next edition when they finished 5th.

The African Championships came to the land of Ras ben Sakka in 1965 and the hosts reached the finals losing to the defending champions Ghana in Tunes.

For some reason or other, they withdrew from participating in the qualifiers of the African Cup of nations afterwards up until 1976. They next qualified for the tournament 2 years later in 1978. The Eagles of Carthage, however, grabbed the most eyeballs in that very year after they qualified for their first ever FIFA World Cup finals under the guidance of new coach Abdelmajid Chetali.

Chetali’s men got the better of Egypt and Nigeria in the final rounds of world cup qualifiers to become only the 4th team in African history(after Egypt in ’34, Morocco in ’70 and Zaire in ’74) to go to the world cup.

The Tunisians went into the world cup mightily confident after their 4th-place finish in the continental tournament where they knocked out holders Morocco in the process.

The African nation, led by Al-Ittihad forward Témime Lahzami, were grouped with defending champions West Germany, North American champions Mexico and 1974 Olympic gold medallists Poland.

The African representatives shocked the world as they came from behind to defeat the Mexicans 3-1 in their first ever world cup match. In the process, they became the first ever African side to register a victory at football’s grandest stage. Although they lost to a Lato goal against Poland, they stirred many more seats after they held the world champions to a goalless draw in the last match. Despite their bravest effort, they were knocked out after finishing 3rd in the group with 3 points from 3 games. But they went out with their heads held high.

The 1965 African runners, started to decline post-1978 world cup big time. They next qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Libya finishing a disappointing 7th. Their next big stage appearance was in 1988 Seoul Olympics. But despite a spirited display that saw them draw against Group A winners Sweden and China, a 1-4 defeat to the West Germans meant they were once again going home early; they finished 13th overall ahead of China, Nigeria and Guatemala.

After a 12 years absence from the African championships, they again took part when they hosted the cup in 1994. But the men from the land of Hannibal were too disappointing after a draw against Zaire and a loss against Mali made them finish 9th overall.

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After the disappointing African Cup of Nations in 1994, Poland’s Henryk Kasperczak was appointed the new manager of the national team and thus begun the first revival of the Tunisian national team. Under the leadership of the 48-year old, the Tunisians qualified for both the 1996 African Cup of Nations as well as the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games. After equalling their best ever finish with a second place in South Africa, (after falling to the hosts in the final) the Eagles’ youth team travelled to the United States being clubbed together with the hosts, Portugal and Argentina. Despite 2 losses and a 14th place finish, their display against La Albiceleste earned accolades for them.

Kasperczak’s men then followed their impressive rise by qualifying for their second world cup in 1998. Grouped with Romania, England and Colombia it was a daunting task to progress further. Despite a laudable draw against group toppers Romania, the whole campaign was pretty much disappointing as they returned home with a solitary point, without a win.

Despite the Pole’s departure after the last world cup of the millennium, the Tunisian team maintained their decent performances in the continental championships with a quarterfinal appearance in ’98, and a fourth-place finish in 2000.

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The Eagles qualified for the next world cup in Korea-Japan in 2002. Despite being pitted in a relatively easier group consisting of Japan, Russia and Belgium, new coach Ammar Souayah’s men couldn’t better their performance from 4 years back of earning a single point.

Famed Frenchman Roger Lemerre took over soon after and revolutionised the team. Not only did they qualify for the 2004 AFCON, they went onto win it for the first time ever. They, later on, ensured qualification to the 2006 world cup and their first ever FIFA Confederations Cup.

Lemerre’s side finished 3rd in group A behind Argentina and Germany with 3 points after their 2-0 victory over Australia in 2005. Their performance in the world cup a year later was very much disappointing again after they could not manage more than a solo point for the third straight time.

Tunisia qualified for all the 7 AFCONs since 2006, never ever managing to go past the quarters on even a single occasion.

Tunisia began to deteriorate once again after the 2006 world cup. They came close to qualifying for the 4th straight time when the world cup came to Africa but missed out after a final day shock loss to Mozambique that saw Nigeria qualify from their group with a point advantage.

They faced a similar fate 4 years later. Under the new format, they qualified to the final playoff rounds after topping their initial group. Drawn against Cameroon, they held the Indomitable Lions to a goalless draw at home. But a highly disappointing 1-4 loss away at Yaounde saw their world cup hopes to crash again.

However, even the “Eagle” has risen from the dead 3 years later. The Tunisians were drawn in group A with Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea. Nabil Maâloul took over in 2017 and his men lived up to the expectation of being the group favourites when a final day goalless draw against Libya confirmed that the Eagles were once again back at the top of the world football.

Football fans across the world, and especially Africa and the Arab world, will be hoping that the first ever African team to win a world cup match, will definitely be looking to improve upon their last 3 outings on football’s grandest stage.

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