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May 23, 2006

Tunisians capable of making history

Although they are largely ignored by most pundits, Tunisia have arguably the best chance of reaching the knockout stages out of all five African sides.

While Ghana and Ivory Coast in particular have been handed nightmarish draws, the Tunisians find themselves in a manageable group, and with a real chance of getting beyond the group stage for the first time in four attempts.

They also hold the distinction of being the second African team after Cameroon to reach three successive finals, having seen off northern rivals Morocco in qualifying.

It is easy to see why they have been forgotten. For starters, they are a known quantity, having appeared in each of the last two World Cups and gone out in the first round of both. Consequently, there is none of the excitement that surrounds World Cup newcomers.

The four other African nations are making their bow on the big stage and are understandably attracting a good deal of attention.

Furthermore, Tunisia's players lack the personality found in the other nations. Where the Ivory Coast have Didier Drogba and Kolo Touré, and Ghana Michael Essien, Tunisia's top players are the rather less well-known Francileudo Santos and Hatem Trabelsi.

Finally, Tunisia's style is at odds with what is expected from the stereotypical African side. Fans hoping to see breathtaking skill, athleticism and defensive chaos will be disappointed.

Never mind that the Ivory Coast also base their game on solid defence and opportunistic attacking, it is Tunisia whose system is constantly (and somewhat patronisingly) described as 'European'.

Perhaps their location in northern rather than western or central Africa adds to this perception, but whatever the reason Tunisia are certainly seen in some quarters as not quite a 'proper' African team.

Even coach Roger Lemerre has bought into the theory, saying earlier this year: 'Yes, it's true, my team plays a European style of football. Discipline, both tactically and mentally, are very important for us.'

Lemerre is in his fourth year in the job, making him by far the longest-serving of the African teams' coaches. However, his last World Cup ended in ignominy and embarrassment.

He took France to Asia four years ago as world and European champions, and brought them home as a laughing stock. Defeats to Senegal and Denmark, and a failure to score in three matches, will do that to pre-tournament favourites.

After that first-round humiliation, Lemerre went some way to restoring his reputation in 2004, when Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations on home soil.

His side were undone in the quarter-finals in the latest edition, which took place in Egypt in January and February and, although the penalty shootout defeat to Nigeria was a disappointment, Tunisia had looked in fine fettle.

Brazilian-born Santos, who qualifies for Tunisian nationality courtesy of three seasons spent at Étoile Sportive du Sahel, scored four goals and his form will be absolutely crucial to a side with no other proven goalscorers.

However, Lemerre will be concerned with Santos's diminishing returns at domestic level, where he netted just five league goals for Toulouse following a switch from Sochaux last summer. Scoring hat-tricks against Zambia is one thing, but how will the diminutive front-man get on against the power and organisation of Ukraine and Spain?

At least Santos has a prolific record in internationals - 18 goals from 28 appearances - which is more than can be said for his likely strike partner Ziad Jaziri.

A player with good technique who can provide a decent foil for Santos, Jaziri's record of less than a goal every four games for Tunisia suggests he will not be much of a threat in Germany. He also fell out with Lemerre after being substituted in Egypt, saying: 'Lemerre does not own the team, he is just a coach and he should respect each one of us as players.'

While his comments sounded more cheesed-off than mutinous, fans will be hoping there is no lingering ill-feeling between Jaziri and his disciplinarian coach in Germany.

Pulling the strings behind the front two will be either Sélim Benachour or Hamed Namouchi. Benachour was Lemerre's playmaker of choice in qualifying and has been a regular this season for his club Vitória Guimarães, but Namouchi played in all four games at the African Cup of Nations.

It seems Lemerre would prefer to pick the latter player, but his record of only seven appearances for Rangers this season could count against him. Whoever gets the nod will expect to play along side captain Riadh Bouazizi.

In goal they boast probably the oldest player at the World Cup in 40-year-old Ali Boumnijel. The Club Africain keeper certainly does not act like a senior citizen, flinging himself around like a man half his age.

He certainly had to wait for his chance, though, spending most of his career as the understudy to the great Chokri El Ouaer, who piled up over 100 caps before finally giving way to Boumnijel, who had by then hit his mid-30s.

When fit, Trabelsi is one of the best right-backs in the game, providing defensive solidity and attacking adventure, and he will be of vital importance.

Even from his withdrawn position, his gallops down the right flank often provide the team's main creative impetus going forward.

He has spent five seasons at Ajax and, at 29, is running out of chances to secure a move to one of Europe's bigger guns. On the left flank is the team's other former Brazilian, José Clayton.

Another wild card inclusion is Bordeaux utility man David Jemmali. The 31-year-old was born in Toulouse but finally agreed to give up on becoming a French international when he answered Lemerre's call at the start of the year.

Although he is a relative newcomer to the squad, he was voted into the French Ligue 1 team of the season and could have a real impact in Germany. One player who does not make the trip is teenage Lyon playmaker Hatem Ben Arfa.

Predictably labelled the 'new Zidane' in some quarters, he has decided to continue in the French Under-21 setup, although he has not ruled out playing for Tunisia at senior level.

Tunisia start their campaign against Saudi Arabia on June 14th, and will fully expect to take maximum points. Next they travel to Stuttgart hoping to be the beneficiaries of another Spanish choke job before taking on Ukraine in what is likely to be a decisive battle for a place in the knockout stages.

Although they are not favourites to progress, it is a schedule that gives them every chance of getting into the knockout stages.