Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tunisia played her first match against Mexico – the only match where, if extremely lucky, the Africans would hope for a point. A miniscule possibility, possible only if the Mexicans terribly underperformed. That was the opinion before the game. But contrary to expectations Tunisia started the match with confidence, played surprisingly well and kept Mexico at bay for whole first half. Yet, the inevitable happened – in the last minute Mexico got a penalty and scored. All those fretting over Tunisian names were breathing easier: nice effort by the outsiders, but now everything was back to normal. 'Normal' was not to be – in the second half Tunisia destroyed the Aztecs, scoring 3 goals.

Spectacular moment, fitting the pre-game predictions: Mexico attacking; Tunisia desperately defending. Rangel, however, is effectively denied by the unknown Tunisian keeper Naimi. The situation looks awkward, for the net seems to be in front – not behind – the goalkeeper, but nevetheless the picture tells the real story: Tunisia had the ball, not Mexico. Naimi played heroically and his inspired performance made him the player of the game.

Surpisingly, the outsiders won 3-1 and their coach Chetali was free to shave his beard: his vow was fulfilled. It was truly historic moment: the very first African victory at World Cup finals. After the opening round Tunisia was leading the group – another unthinkable moment. This guy Chetali apparently did not make an empty gesture, when he vowed to not to shave until first win, but still observers were skeptical: Mexico seemingly underperformed, Tunisia won on the wings of enthusiasm, but now the time to face mighty European arrived – and with that, the end of the mavericks. Good play, enjoy the win, shave the beard – and good bye.

The Polish assault confirmed precisely that – in the first few minutes. Tunisia coolly survived the initial barrage and equalized the game. Poland played predictable and not at all inventive football, which the Tunisians deciphered quickly and although the Poles were more active and physically supreme, the African team was not broken down at all. With time, Polish frustrations showed themselves – the team was not effective at all. Eventually, Lato scored in the 42nd minute. Once again Tunisia received a goal at the end of the first half, and once again the goal was interpreted as the end of the Africans.

And once again Tunisia proved predictions wrong: they were much fresher than Poland in the second half, got the initiative, and dominated to the end. But unlucky... twice the goalposts denied Tunisia from scoring. Then a Polish defender managed to clear the ball practically from the goal line. Poland was clearly outplayed, but managed to preserve her fragile lead. Tunisia did not score and lost.
Equal to the Poles? Actually, better than the Poles – Tunisia in attack again, and Polish defender Gorgon desperately trying to clear the ball – or to take down the Tunisian striker.

Tunisia was praised after the match – no longer the weak outsider, but the pleasant surprise, which was just unlucky. Double unlucky, for surely they had no chance against West Germany. Theoretically, Tunisia still had a chance of advancing: if they win against the world champions. Even with a tie, if Poland lost to Mexico. Nobody expected such results, no matter how badly both European teams played so far. And for a third time the underdogs surprised everybody: they played again as equals.
Naimi saves Klaus Fischer's shot. Tunisia played strong defense, strong midfield, strong attack. True, West Germany was happy with a tie, but Tunisia proved to be dangerous opponent. At the end it was scoreless tie – Tunisia was eliminated, but with great difficulty and not at all beaten down.

Much later it was said that 'African football was discovered' in 1978 – a stupid and laughable view, concocted years after the championship. A minority of specialists predicted African explosion for years – finally, it happened. Tunisia was not just enthusiastic team, surviving mostly because others were too slow to take them seriously, like the case of North Korea in 1966. The team was competent, well versed in modern football, showed tactical discipline, no fear, and considerable confidence. Unlike most African and Asian teams appearing at World Cup finals so far, Tunisia was very fit and up to the physical demands of modern football. And their play brought results – the first African win in history; the tie against the reigning world champions. Obviously the coach knew his job too. The team was young enough to last and develop further. Naimi played very well, but previously suspect Tarak Dhiab proved to be really excellent player – a modern midfielder equal to the best in Europe. As a whole, Tunisia was praised – perhaps they lacked a bit of experience, but they were a team for the future. They got valuable experience in 1978, almost reached the second stage, so they were to become only better in the next few years. It was team seemingly ready to stay among the best.

Curiously, no European clubs appeared interested in Tunisian players and specialist were not very excited about Chetali – the Tunisians remained unknown, in part because they were considered still immature. But they returned home as heroes and internationally were well liked.