Monday, May 20, 2013

Tunisia were the absolute outsiders. After the disastrous performance by Zaire in 1974 no African team was expected to get even single points at World Cup finals. Tunisia was unknown team, with no foreign based players. They looked even more hopeless than Zaire, for they did not reach the final of the African Championship in the early 1978 – Zaire did much better 4 years earlier. The team attracted no interest, a team to provide points to everybody else in their group and to go home early. The only news was in the realm of trivia and concerned their coach. Normally, African teams were coached by foreigners – mostly Europeans and sometimes South Americans – a tradition still followed in 21st century. Tunisia differed by appointing and keeping for the finals domestic coach. This was interesting as a news, but also contributed to the general low opinion of the team: if European coaches were unable to shape a half-decent African team, imagine what a native coach would do! Worse, surely.
Abdulmejid Chetali was not only native, but also young – 39 years old in 1978. If young coaches of other nations were praised, in the case of Tunisia it was seen as another weakness: naïve, inexperienced local coach was just another handicap. Chetali was Tunisian legend – as a player, he played astonishing 70 matches for the national team in the 1960s, but everything was possible in Africa. If it was true at all, for African records were notoriously suspect. But Chetali never played outside Tunisia, so he was entirely unknown. And remained so when appointed to coach the national team in 1974. His name surfaced only when Tunisia presented her squad for the finals. Then Chetali 'made' his name known: he vowed not to shave his beard until Tunisia wins a match at the finals. This was the biggest news about Tunisian team, practically the only news, and it was interesting only as a joke – no African team ever won a match at World Cup finals. Forget about getting even a point against West Germany and Poland – Mexico alone was too much for an African team. Chetali perhaps was thinking about some distant future... since no African team was able to appear more than once at the finals, it was to be growing a beard forever. Most likely poor Chetali was going to die unshaved. How long was to be his beard 20, 30, may be 40 years later? Laughable vow, worthy a cartoon or two. And that was all about the Tunisian team before the championship started.

1   GK  Sadok Sassi             15 November 1945 (aged 32)    Club Africain 2   DF   Mokhtar Dhouib       23 March 1952 (aged 26)          CS Sfaxien
3   DF   Ali Kaabi                 15 November 1953 (aged 24)    COT Tunis
4   MF  Khaled Gasmi           8 April 1953 (aged 25)              Club Bizerta
5   DF   Mohsen Labidi         15 January 1954 (aged 24)         Stade Tunis
6   MF  Néjib Ghommidh      12 March 1953 (aged 25)          Club Africain
7   FW  Témime Lahzami      1 January 1949 (aged 29)           Al-Ittihad
8   MF  Mohamed Ben Rehaiem  20 March 1951 (aged 27)   CS Sfaxien
9   FW  Mohamed Akid        5 July 1949 (aged 28)                CS Sfaxien
10 MF  Tarak Dhiab             15 July 1954 (aged 23)              Espérance
11 FW  Abderraouf Ben Aziza  23 September 1953 (aged 24) Étoile Sportive du Sahel
12 MF  Khemais Labidi         30 August 1950 (aged 27)         JS Kairouan
13 FW  Néjib Liman              12 June 1953 (aged 24)            Stade Tunis
14 FW  Slah Karoui               11 September 1951 (aged 26)  Étoile Sportive du Sahel
15 FW  Mohamed Ben Mouza  5 April 1954 (aged 24)          Club Africain
16 FW  Ohman Chehaibi        23 December 1954 (aged 23)   JS Kairouan
17 DF   Ridha El Louze          27 April 1953 (aged 25)           Sfax Railways Sports
18 DF   Kamel Chebli            9 March 1954 (aged 24)           Club Africain
19 FW  Mokhtar Hasni          19 March 1952 (aged 26)         La Louviére
20 DF   Amor Jebali               24 December 1956 (aged 21)   AS Marsa
21 GK  Lamine Ben Aziza      10 November 1952 (aged 25)   Étoile Sportive du Sahel
22 GK  Mokhtar Naili            3 September 1953 (aged 24)     Club Africain

The only thing about the Tunisians was sorting out their names – trying to get them, at least relatively, right in spelling and perhaps figuring out the ever confusing problem of players listed officially with names not matching previous information and actual match lines. Point in case: whatever pictures of team Tunisia emerged before the finals, they showed a goalkeeper named Attouga as a captain. There was no such player in the official Tunisian World Cup squad. May be the captain just of few months before was dropped? If so, why? Yet, there was a player looking similar to this Attouga – Sadok Sassi. It was the same player, officially Sassi, but known at home as Attouga. Apart from this traditional confusion, leading to spelling errors and constant uncertainty who was who, there was little to say about the squad – two foreign based players, seemingly the stars of the unknown team: the new captain Temime Lahzami, playing in Saudi Arabia for Al-Ittihad, and another striker, Mokhtar Hasni, playing for La Louviere in Belgium. Neither club suggested real class, though. The rest were playing for Tunisian clubs and the best known was the 1977 African player of the year Tarak Dhiab. Modest team, at best. Whatever close investigation was possible, made it even weaker: Lahzami, apparently the star of the team, since he was the new captain, debuted in 1977. He was 29 years old in 1978... how really good could be such a player? And how good would be a team captained by such star?  
Enigmatic Tunisia – the team for the match against Mexico. The Russian list of players only illustrates the eternal confusion with names of African players: standing from left: the Russian transcription of the first name does not match any of the official team list. In English, it may be something like Jendoubi. The name does not exist at all in other Russian sources. Mohsen Labidi was known as Jendoubi. Next to the mystery – Naili, next – Agrebi, with another name given in parenthesis: Ben Rehaiem; next – another doubled name: Dhouib or may be Dhouieb; Kaabi, and Gasmi.
Crouching: Lahzami, Abderraouf Ben Aziza, Akid, Dhiab, Ghommidh.

Clear enough? If still confused, you are not alone... this is supposed to be the line-up facing Mexico. Just look at other lists of the same match – and Jebali appears among the players. And mysterious Chaib... well, good luck with the puzzle.

At the end, the best hope of solving the name mystery was early elimination – no team, no problem – which was exactly the fate envisioned for the absolute outsiders.