Five minutes of extra time might not seem like much for a soccer match, but it felt like an eternity during Tunisia’s last match against Libya in the 2018 FIFA World Cup African qualifiers.
On Nov. 11, fans of the Carthage Eagles, dressed in the red and white of the Tunisian flag, knew that the slightest mistake, the slightest lapse in defense, would stop their team from reaching the World Cup for the third time in a row. The Eagles only needed a tie to advance and complete the team's resurgence since the overthrow of the country’s longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011.
After 94 minutes and 56 seconds of play, the referee blew his whistle. The Eagles had held on for a 0-0 tie with Libya. The crowd roared in Rades Stadium, just outside the Tunisian capital city of Tunis. Tunisia was headed for the World Cup, to be held in Russia, June 14-July 15.
The Eagles’ resurgence comes nearly seven years after the country’s democratic revolution. Another sign of the change since then is that the Tunisian Soccer Federation, although not without its flaws, now democratically elects its president. For many Tunisians, the national team's on-field success and the democratization of the sport are welcomed relief.
Hachemi Esseghir, a lifelong Tunisia soccer fan and retired in-country State Department employee, told Al-Monitor, “This comes like a breath of fresh air. It couldn’t have come at a better time. People are looking for anything to hang on to.”
Esseghir expressed the sentiment of many a Tunisian. Food prices are rising, scores of youth are heading to Europe by boat and the value of the dinar is dropping. Although feeling fairly safe from the threat of terrorism, many feel the country is stagnating. The World Cup qualifiers offered avid and casual fans of soccer a needed respite from their daily struggles.
Tunisia has had a recent history of producing talented soccer teams, so fans have grown accustomed to getting through the qualification rounds. The team qualified in 1978 and then successfully did so three consecutive times, in 1998, 2002 and 2006. The team did not make it into the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, to the great disappointment of the countries' impassioned soccer fans. These sports failures also coincided with underwhelming performances in the biennial Africa Cup of Nations tournament. This time around was, however, different. The fans were rewarded.
“Positive soccer performances have always provided Tunisian society with a feeling of joy and happiness, especially during an unstable phase,” Sam Ghorbel, a Tunisian sports enthusiast, told Al-Monitor. The euphoria over the team’s success will last among some, at least until the team’s first match against England, in Volgograd, next June. Next summer, the team will play in Group G — against England, Belgium and Panama — from which it will be difficult to advance, barring a miracle or two.
Given this draw, along with Tunisia’s performance at previous World Cups — no victories since a 3-1 win over Mexico in its first match of the 1978 tournament — has some fans already lowering their expectations. Although the match against Libya left fans happy about qualifying, the team's level of play worried them.
In earlier African qualifiers, the team defeated Guinea and won one match against the Democratic Republic of Congo and in another match came back from two goals down to draw with them. In these three matches, the team, led by its star playmaker, Youssef Msakni, played with class and unity. In the match against Libya, the team looked completely out of form.
“Some of us don’t think we even deserve to qualify,” Amine Cherif, a young business school graduate who plays weekly soccer matches with friends, told Al-Monitor. “They think it’s useless to go to the World Cup at this level of play, that we’re going to blow it once again.” Regardless, Cherif said, qualifying unifies the country. Some see things differently.
“Hype about major achievements tends to cover for all that is going wrong in the country,” Houssem Hajlaoui, co-founder of the Tunisian investigative news site Inkyfada, told Al-Monitor. Hajlaoui noted how Ben Ali used the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations championship, hosted by Tunisia, as a major piece of propaganda for his regime and cult of personality. In the 52nd minute, Tunisian striker Ziad Jaziri put his team ahead of Morocco, 2-1 to win the tournament, with the president and his wife, Leila, in the stands.
Tunisia's soccer federation was not spared the corruption that spread throughout society under Ben Ali's rule. Teams in the country's top professional league typically only won the league championship if they had good relations with the dictator. Referees made sure calls went in favor of those teams. On top of that, team presidents, among them Ben Ali's son-in-law Slim Chiboub, competed for championships through a system of bribes and favors. National team players were often selected by individuals like Chiboub, with connections to the ruling family and their cronies, so the best players were not always chosen. Connections could matter more than talent.
“We had fake elections during the Ben Ali era,” Mourad Aloulou, a political observer and fan of Tunisian soccer, told Al-Monitor. “For me, it is different. We now have elections to choose the president of the soccer federation. This also means that players will not be selected for the national team simply based on having connections to the government."
Fans are not the only ones enjoying the resurgence of Tunisia’s national team. Companies and businesses across the country are capitalizing on the team’s success and the build-up to the World Cup through advertising campaigns and through tie-ins to the tournament aimed at soccer fans.
“I think the Carthage Eagles only have a slight chance of advancing to the knockout stages,” Maher Mezahi, an Algerian journalist focusing on soccer in North Africa, told Al-Monitor. “But if they are taken lightly by England or Belgium, Tunisia could shock the world and make it out of the group stage for the first time in their history.”
For the time being, Tunisians are proud of their national soccer team, at least until summer.