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Jun 14, 2006

An international incident

Tunisia 2 - 2 Saudi Arabia

'Why do they bother even coming?' The half-time view of a Soccernet operative who shall remain nameless.

How best to approach the footballing feast that always promised to be Saudi Arabia v Tunisia? The last two teams to show their hand in Germany, and for most the least known of quantities in the entire 32-team draw.

The latter may remain true but the 2-2 draw that came to life in the last half hour in Munich was no meaningless match. Try telling that to the fans who attacked the press box in retribution at a wildly celebrating Saudi contingent after Sami Al Jaber had put the Saudis into a 2-1 lead six minutes from time.

Hooliganism has obviously made it to the Muslim world; two Saudi journalists ran for their lives with a Polizei escort as Tunisian fans mimed pistol-firing and throat-cutting at them. A late goal from Radhi Jaidi quelled the rage of the North Africans though both sides, when the tempers have died down, will look back on a missed opportunity.

For many pre-tournament observers, Group H was a backwater; one in which Spain, perennial underachievers sure to blow up later in the month but not now, with Ukraine, finals debutants featuring Chelsea's latest megabuy, deadset to progress too.

But, to the fans of the teams playing, earlier events in Leipzig had made this match a fixture of genuine significance. The Spanish destruction of Shevchenko's men had jammied open a door to the second round. Were either team to get three points then the second round was a genuine prospect.

Wednesday tea-time at Munich's spanking new Allianz Arena (re-named the World Cup Arena for FIFA's cash-raking purposes) has been labelled the dog game of the entire first round since December's draw.

One British newspaper even brought out a travel guide to Germany featuring a special section of what to do in each city during Tunisia v Saudi Arabia.

In truth, that attitude is sadly reflective of the elitist coverage of the modern game; any game not featuring the star names of the Premiership and Champions League is usually a struggle for broadcasters and the written press.

The concept of a 'World' Cup still evades many supposed experts; though surely the idea of teams from less decorated continents taking part is the whole point of a global showcase.

Thankfully the cortege of Tunisian fans who had been at the ground since midday after arriving in a fleet of flag-adorned BMWs showed little semblance of an inferiority complex. And their stirring national anthem signified their pride in being here to compete with the elite.

The Saudis, less apparent in numbers, though noticeably vocal in the press box whenever a Saudi move broke down, were quieter than their North African cousins, their drums not reaching the decibel level of the percussion accompanying chants of 'Tunisie, Tunisie'.

It was a majority of Germans present in a sold-out Arena, the locals perhaps victims of the pre-draw ticket ballot but enthusiastic nonetheless.

All were in good spirits ahead of the national team's assignment in Dortmund later in the evening and replica shirts of the nationalmanschafft were in abundance.

But the chance to join in a pre-match medley of 'I will survive' and Deutscher rewrites of Brit lad classics 'Altogether now' and 'Three Lions' proved irresistible. So too the dreaded cliche of the Mexican wave.

Tunisia, 2004 champions of Africa, are attempting to reach the knock-out stage for the first time in four finals. The Saudis perhaps dreamed of emulating the promised land of USA '94 when that famous Maradona-esque goal from Saaeed Owairan defeated the Belgians and took them to the second round.

For the Saudis, in their fourth successive finals, memories of 2002 are raw. Indeed the pre-match dropping of goalkeeper Mohammed Al Daeyea, whose comedic keeping in the opening 8-0 thrashing at the Sapporo Dome by the Germans set the tone for a horrific visit East, signalled that Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta was aware of the legacy of that match.

And the Saudis began with a noticeable sense of damage limitation, escaping an early penalty claim and a looping header from Karim Haggui but defending in a far more disciplined fashion than that which sent Alan Hansen into speechless rage at the last World Cup.

With neither of their recognised stars in Sami Al Jaber or Mohammad Al Shlhoub, the man nicknamed 'Baby Maradona', in the starting line-up, Paqueta turned to a line-up made up of players from just three clubs - Al Hilal, Al Itthad and Al Ahli, whose lone representative was captain Hussein Sulimani.

The North Africans looked the stronger from the start, neater on the ball. Hatem Trabelsi, the Ajax full-back long linked with the Premiership, took a first-half watching brief in sitting back while youngster Yacine Chikhaoui, in the side in place of injured naturalised Brazilian Santos, and Zied Jaziri, of French club Troyes, foraged up front off a hard-working midfield.

It was Jaziri's fine finish that propelled the Tunisian fans into raptures in the 23rd minute after the Saudis, despite depth in numbers, failed to clear in a crossed free-kick.

The Saudis' lone striker in Al Kahtani struggled early on against the strong defensive pairing of Bolton's Radhi Jaidi and Haggui. Though awarded a series of free-kicks on the edge of the box, keeper Boumnijel had rarely looked in danger until an attack down the right-hand side produced a lovely cross from Noor for Al Kahtani to hit the roof of the net when marshalled by two Tunisians 12 minutes after half-time.

After looking idealess for so long, the impetus was thus with the Saudis. Their press box fanclub were in raptures while the Tunisian contingent showed their feelings in a series of guttural insults coupled with a repeated smashing of the plexi-glass behind the press box. A draw was not enough for either side and the Tunisians perhaps felt that more strongly.

As the game neared its end, Australian referee Mark Shield showed little interest in some Saudi play-acting. Though neither did he hold much truck with backchat, booking Chikhaoui for extended protestation.

And then all hell broke loose. Al Jaber scored within two minutes of his arrival, coolly finishing a flowing move. Our Arabian friends could not contain themselves. But nor could the Tunisian fans. This piece has been concluded through a sheen of spittle aimed at the Saudis, who, for a while, gave as good as they got, until sheer weight of numbers forced them to seek refuge, one of them being interviewed by an opportunist Saudi radio man as he hurried off.

Though it was difficult to focus on events on the pitch it became clear that the Saudis were attempting to sit back on their lead. Tunisian pressure finally told when the bulk of Jaidi powered home a Jaziri chip deep into injury time. The mood lifted around the press box, the hail of phlegm now less aimed and more in over-expressed delight.

The question of why these two nations bothered turning up had its answer. Though in drawing, neither team had the conclusion it truly desired.


SAUDI VERDICT: A vast improvement on 2002, with genuine flashes of attacking skill in the second half. Belief remains a problem and that late goal will probably deny their players the promised megabonus for making the second round.

TUNISIA VERDICT: Perhaps underestimated their opponents after having the best of the first half but Roger Lemerre will be pleased with their spirit. It seems in abundance in Tunisia. Though defending is not.

GROUP H VERDICT: The Spaniards should progress with ease. Their expected collapse will come later in the tournament. Ukraine are reprieved by this result. Can they recover with a win against the Saudis?

MUNICH VERDICT: Super stadium, super support for such a supposedly low-key game. Though there was a noticeable emptying as fans decided to head to the Olympic Park to watch the national team take on Poland.

FIFA WATCH: A replacement for 'Foodwatch' since freebies are out for journos. Broadband access costs serious cash and pricey butties are the fare on offer. Those experienced campaigners around are calling it 'Blatter's revenge' - the allegations against him have made him somewhat ill-disposed to the Fourth Estate it seems.

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