A record-breaking two game run, a good showing in their last game and something like a home atmosphere wasn’t enough to see Tunisia through.
On the 2nd June 1978, Tunisia made their debut in the World Cup in Rosario against Mexico and won the game 3-1. On the 20th June 2018, they recorded their second win, 2-1 against Panama in Saransk. Neither resulted in them qualifying from their group; 2022 is their sixth attempt at getting through the group stage. They haven’t succeeded yet, and their chances of doing so are now hanging by a thread after Australia worked their backsides off for a 1-0 win that leaves them staring down the barrel of elimination from the World Cup.
They arrived for their lunchtime kick-off against Australia with their tails up. That win against Panama coupled with their goalless draw against Denmark in the opening game of this tournament constituted their longest ever unbeaten run in the World Cup. They also gave England one hell of a fight in their group match in 2018, with the eventual semi-finallists needing a stoppage-time goal to nick the game 2-1. Their record in the World Cup has been… improving.
Tunisia can feel a little like the half-forgotten team of African football, at times. When the big West African teams arrive at a World Cup finals, they do so with a grand flourish. You know when they’ve arrived, usually with a riot of colour. But Tunisia don’t seem to carry that type of clout. Their half-decent qualifying record means that there’s no feeling of novelty at drawing them and with both of their previous wins in this tournament having ended up of little consequence they’ve never caused a major surprise, either.
Australia’s World Cup record is surprisingly similar. They have also qualified for the World Cup finals six times, once in the 1970s and more regularly in the 21st century, and have also recorded two wins in the competition, including their first ever match in the World Cup finals (against Japan in 2006, with the other coming against Serbia in 2010).
The only big difference in these records is that the first of those wins was of consequence for Australia, because it ultimately meant that they did qualify for the second round of the competition in 2006, where it took a late, late Francesco Totti penalty for Italy to beat them 1-0. But they haven’t got through the group stages since, either. They started this time around with a 4-1 defeat to a France team who sparkled like champagne, but how much could be read into that?
If anything, these two teams came into the game from opposing perspectives, Tunisian expectations inflated by that draw with Denmark, Australia’s slightly deflated by the scale of their defeat to France. But while both are perennial World Cup travellers – Australia will never see anything like home advantage until they host it themselves, while Tunisia’s entire continent has only ever hosted one World Cup and, and even then, Tunisia is geographically closer to the North Pole than it is to South Africa – on this occasion it felt like a Tunisia home game.
The early afternoon kick-off in a temperature recorded at 32°c (89°f) couldn’t dampen a carnivalesque atmosphere in a largely noisily supportive crowd. A Premier League Saturday lunchtime kick-off at which nobody really wants to be in attendance this was was not. But that noise and spectacle in itself also carries a weight of pressure, and there was certainly an undercurrent of nervousness behind the position in which Tunisia found themselves by half-time.
True enough, they’d taken a point from their game against Denmark, but this didn’t alter the fact that Australia had already got France out of the way, while Tunisia have to play them in their final group game. Small wonder the game had a bit of the cup tie atmosphere about it; Tunisia really needed the win.
There was a wall of sound behind Tunisia throughout the early stages every time they were in possession of the ball and a chorus of whistles every time they weren’t. It was tempting to wonder, as passes went astray and Tunisia laboured hard without being able to control the game, whether this febrile atmosphere actually helps a team or not. Australia controlled the tempo comfortably and thoroughly warranted the lead given to them midway through the first half by Mitchell Duke’s flicked header. By the the time the half-time whistle came around the stadium was much quieter than it had been at the start.
The second half continued in a similarly stop-start fashion, with a fusspot of a referee whistling away with merry abandon at any push or shove. This all suited Australia perfectly fine. They had the goal. All they needed to do was hang on. even though Tunisia didn’t significantly improve, Whabi Khazri, who’s scored 24 goals for them in 72 appearances – exactly the sort of player that we’d have thought they might need at a point in the tournament such as this, remained mystifyingly on the bench until the 67th minute.
Chances started to present themselves for Tunisia in the closing minutes, but the finishing was poor. Australia, who were under enormous pressure themselves, put in a performance of grit and determination best encapsulated by Aaron Mooy, whose workrate in the centre of midfield was little short of exceptional.
They will have to raise their game again because they will need a win from their final game against Denmark and that is a tall order, notwithstanding their opponents’ lacklustre performance against Tunisia in their opening match. But if spirit and heart count for much, you wouldn’t put it past them on the basis of this performance.
As for Tunisia themselves, well, perhaps the best that can be said for their performance is that they improved slightly in the second half and that they’re still in the competition. They need a win against France in their final qualifying match, but they have not been mathematiclly been eliminated just yet.
But there can be no masking what a huge disappointment this will be for them, a match as close to a home match as might be possible, against what looked like beatable opposition, and off the back of a decent result in their previous match, all ending in a somewhat lifeless defeat. The sense of disappointment was writ large across the faces of their players after the final whistle.
Six attempts, still never through the group stage, and they now need to beat the holders France in their final game to get through to the second round. Now that would be a defining result, one that would really put Tunisia on the World Cup map, one that would ensure that they would fly under its radar no longer. Unfortunately on this occasion and on the basis of the evidence of the Australia match, this doesn’t seem very likely at all.
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