Tunisia's Carthage Eagles: Brothers at Arms
On a warm evening at the Olympic Stadium of Radès on November 11th, Tunisia's Carthage Eagles qualified for their fifth World Cup. The accomplishment was particularly meaningful for a tight-knit squad of players and their father figure of a coach, Nabil Maaloul.
Of the 23 players that were called up for the match, 13 play their club football for either of local giants Étoile du Sahel or Esperance de Tunis, and have grown especially close as a result of crossing paths so frequently.
Had you watched the Tunisian Clasico the following fortnight, which pits these two sides against one another, you would have never guessed it.
Three dismissals, catapulted chunks of concrete nuggets from the stands, and an all-out brawl were not enough to convince the Tunisian match official, Amir Ayed, to prematurely blow for full-time. The continental contenders played out a nil-nil draw, but the singular point had diametrically different connotations for the respective sides.
Reigning champions Esperance had won all seven of their league matches leading into the Clasico and are evolving into a postmodern African superpower, armed with budget room to offer competitive wage packets to players with European experience like Anice Badri, Anis Ben Hatira, or Ferjani Sassi.
A draw away to the arch-nemesis and principal pretenders to the throne was a welcome result amidst their tight-packed schedule, which had them making up postponed matches due to their quarter-final run in the African Champions League.
Étoile were also making up matches after punching their way to the semi finals of the same competition.
Egypt's Al Ahly humiliated them in the final four, dishing out a 6-2 demolition to the side from Sousse. Immediately after the dressing down in Egypt, coach Hubert Velud was sacked and interim caretakers were instated. A victory for Étoile was imperative to write themselves back in their supporters' good books and make up lost ground in the league table.
Stade Olympique de Sousse, a rundown crater on the outskirts of the Sahelian capital, filled up an hour prior to kickoff. Throughout the ninety minutes, Étoile's Ultras Brigade Rouge never stopped serenading the wind-whipped air. Dozens of flares and stroboscopes were set off as thousands bounced up and down in an attempt to keep warm.
Very little aesthetically pleasing football ended up being played.
What really came through was overbearing cynicism and teeth-grinding grit. Each set of players nicked at heels to snuff out counter-attacks, packed the box with eleven players to defend corner-kicks, and contested each of the match official's decision in hope of influencing the next.
In the 92nd minute, a brawl broke out on the pitch, with both benches clearing. That is when the bulk of projectiles were launched, and the media rushed into the players' tunnel.
Inside, a human wall of police officers split the two locker rooms. As the players filed in, a water bottle flew across the human pylons and barely missed an Esperance player. Cue mayhem.
A dozen bottles were launched in the mini-war as well as an empty paint can and a wooden chair.
As order was finally restored, Esperance players dragged media to their changing room to try and record evidence of Étoile's bad faith.
Khalil Chemmam, Esperance's experienced left-back, was particular incensed.
"There are players that are nice to your face in Radès (where the national team assemble)," he told KweséESPN.
"They smile in your face, but I cannot even tell you what they tell you on the pitch," he concluded, surely referencing the fisticuffs he exchanged with Tunisia's starting right-back Hamdi Nagguez.
Overnight we learned that Étoile's president - an edgy politician who many suspect feigned an assassination attempt - resigned.
Tarek Mejrissi, Étoile's press officer, was looking the worse for wear the next morning at the Sousse Palace Hotel.
Embarrassed, tired and dragging on cigarette after cigarette, he informed KweséESPN that he felt an irregular heartbeat after the match press conference and travelled to the hospital in the middle of the night.
"There were bad omens leading up to the match," he continued, dejectedly. "Last week, before the match against Stade Tunisien, the players were insulted as they were warming up.
"This is all because of our elimination to Al Ahly."
However, Mejrissi dismissed the suggestion that the incendiary incidents between players would affect the Carthage Eagles' team chemistry.
"Not at all," he laughed, "they hate each other for ninety minutes, but the next time they meet with the national team they will be best of friends."
Étoile and Tunisia's centre-half Rami Bedoui reinforced that notion an hour later, as he joined Mejrissi at Sousse Palace for a television interview.
Bedoui was especially animated the night before and had to be restrained on several occasions, yet he calmly faced Sony FS7s and told the English crew that the Tunisian national team's main strength is their team spirit.
One reason team chemistry is such an asset is the vast majority of Tunisia's squad play their football in Tunisia. It is also for that reason that the Carthage Eagles will be an unknown commodity in Russia.
At the Cup of Nations in Gabon last January, Tunisian players took offence to being undervalued and it became a chip on their collective shoulders. After defeating Algeria 2-1, Aymen Abdennour set the record straight with Tunisian journalists that he believed did not respect their own team.
"If you compare their team to ours one by one, they are not better than us," he told reporters after the match. "I played at the Parc des Princes at the age of 20, and Youssef Msakni has 12 titles. We are Tunisian, we live in Tunisia, and we speak Tunisian. Be fair to my friends (teammates)."
Although Abdennour was right to call out the widespread underestimation of his teammates, it is common knowledge that Tunisian football is built on its intangibles not its individualities.
Along Tunis' main avenues, for example, Coca-Cola have erected metallic billboards and chose, "Grinta ya l'hamra" (Play with grinta, you Reds)" as a slogan.
In a country that may not enjoy the resources of its Western neighbours, the Carthage Eagles will have to rely on that infamous 'team spirit', an element of surprise, and unrelenting hard knocks football to nip past England, Belgium or Panama, and into the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup.