by Trevor Whenham
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Tunisia's World Cup career started with a bang. The team upset a strong Mexican squad 3-1 in its first ever game at the 1978 World Cup. That was the first time that an African team had ever won a World Cup game.
It's all been downhill from there, however. Though it has qualified for its third consecutive World Cup, the team hasn't won another game since 1978. The World Cup hasn't been kind, but Tunisia has enjoyed some competitive success. The Eagles of Carthage have been one of the stronger teams in northern Africa for several years, most clearly in 2004 when they won the African Cup of Nations on home soil. As a result of that win, they represented Africa at the 2005 Confederations Cup and they looked solid doing it. They put up a strong showing in a 2-1 loss to Argentina and soundly beat Australia, though they didn't make it out of their group.
Tunisia's coach, Roger Lemerre, is an immensely talented guide who will be out to exorcise past demons at the World Cup. He was assistant coach of the French team for its glorious 1998 World Cup run. He took over the team soon afterwards and led it to victory in Euro 2000, further validating the supremacy of French soccer. He was riding high going into the 2002 World Cup, but his team not only didn't win a game, it didn't even score a goal. Such was the depth of French embarrassment that Lemerre was unofficially dismissed as coach before he even returned to France.
Tunisia doesn't have the power or the potential that the 2002 French squad did, but Lemerre will be highly motivated to get the most out of his charges so that he can prove himself on soccer's biggest stage. He took over Tunisia soon after leaving France and his stay has so far been successful. The African Cup of Nations victory and World Cup qualifications are just the beginning of his ambitions for his team, though.
Tunisia World Cup 2006 Odds: Tunisia is at odds of 200-1 to win the 2006 World Cup, according to Nine Sportsbook. They, along with Ghana, have the second best odds for a team from Africa.
Strengths: Tunisia has been helped immeasurably by its government's willingness to issue passports to promising foreign players. Francileudo Dos Santos is a 26-year-old Brazilian who gave up hopes of cracking the Brazilian squad in 2003 and became a Tunisian citizen. He is a striker for Toulouse FC of the French Ligue 1. He was transferred there for 3.25 million Euros after netting 35 goals in two years for FC Sochaux, helping them return to Ligue 1. He is an immensely talented and incredibly fast, though slightly undersized, forward who was hurt by the incredible depth at striker in Brazil. He scored 6 goals in qualifying for Tunisia and he will be relied on for offensive firepower in Germany.
Supporting him will be fellow striker Haykel Guemamdia. He's young and very raw, but already can be considered among the top flight of African strikers. This tournament can only make him better.
Hatem Trabelsi, who plays for Ajax Amsterdam, is arguably one of the best right-side defenders in the world. He is very quick and can ably shift to the offensive when the opportunity presents itself. He, along with Riadh Bouazizi in the midfield, will be the strong veteran presence relied upon to keep the team on track.
Lemerre is unquestionably a strength. The team is noticeably stronger since he took over as coach. He has them more organized, more disciplined and more prepared. Though his 2002 experience was a disaster, Lemerre learned more than enough in 1998 to teach this team how to compete and how to win.
Weaknesses: The team is decent defensively, but it could certainly be better. It allowed 9 goals in the qualifying run. Defensively, the team has a bend but don't break approach that works fine against much of its African competition, but will be challenged by the offensive firepower that high level teams like Spain and even Ukraine can produce. If it can't hold up and limit the goals its opponents score, Tunisia may very well find itself too far behind to keep up.
Tunisia is hurt by a lack of depth. Its biggest star plays for a dismal French Ligue 1 team and few players are playing on top European teams. The team has talented players and it is well coached, but the lack of top-level experience and world-class skill could get in the way of the success that fans will be hoping for.
Tunisia World Cup 2006 Outlook: The team can comfortably be called the third best team in its group. Though Spain and Ukraine are markedly better, that doesn't always mean that they will move on at the World Cup. If Tunisia plays its absolute best and one of the top teams is off, there is no reason that this club couldn't make the second round. The opening match against Saudi Arabia will be crucial for this team's success. If the pressure gets to them and they aren't playing well, however, they could underachieve and finish last in the group. Neither outcome would be a giant surprise, which makes the World Cup so much fun to watch.
Tunisia World Cup 2006 First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Wednesday, June 14, Group H3 Tunisia vs. Group H4 Saudi Arabia, in Munich, 6 p.m.
Monday, June 19, Group H1 Spain vs. Group H3 Tunisia, in Stuttgart, 9 p.m.
Friday, June 23, Group H2 Ukraine vs. Group H3 Tunisia, in Berlin, 4 p.m.