Tunisia head to their sixth FIFA World Cup finals this winter, making it two tournaments in a row after also qualifying for the 2018 tournament to end a previous 12-year absence from the global stage.
The Eagles of Carthage are the third-highest ranked African side in the competition this year, standing 30th in the world overall behind Senegal (18th) and Morocco (22nd). But their World Cup record up to now, despite being regular qualifiers from 1998 to 2006, isn’t great.
In 15 games at this level, they have won only twice – against Mexico way back in their first ever World Cup outing in 1978, and four years ago against first-time qualifiers Panama.
That being said, Tunisia have never been completely hopeless minnows and have never been eliminated from a World Cup by losing all three games or failing to secure at least one point.
It gives Jalel Kadri’s class of 2022 a degree of hope, although the odds remains stacked against them in the grand scheme of things.
Goalkeepers: Aymen Mathlouthi (Etoile du Sahel), Aymen Dahman (Sfaxien), Bechir Ben Said (Monastir), Mouez Hassan (Club Africain)
Defenders: Biel Ifa (Kuwait SC), Montassar Talbi (Lorient), Yassine Meriah (Esperance), Dylan Bronn (Salernitana), Ali Maaloul (Al Ahly), Mohamed Drager (Luzern), Wajdi Kechrida (Atromitos), Ali Abdi (Caen)
Midfielders: Nader Ghandri (Club Africain), Hannibal Mejbri (Birmingham), Ferjani Sassi (Al-Duhail), Aissa Laidouni (Ferencvaros), Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane (Esperance), Ellyes Skhiri (Koln), Ghailene Chaalali (Esperance),
Forwards: Youssef Msakni (Al-Arabi), Issam Jebali (OB), Wahbi Khazri (Montpellier), Taha Yassine Khenissi (Kuwait SC), Seifeddine Jaziri (Zamalek), Naim Sliti (Al-Ettifaq), Anis Ben Slimane (Brondby)
There had been concerns about Youssef Msakni after suffering an injury while playing for club side Al Arabi, but he is okay and Tunisia are generally in good shape.
Msakni could have a big role to play / Kenta Harada/GettyImages
The 32-year-old will captain the side, is one of the elder statesmen in the squad, is most capped and is arguably also the chief goal threat. He also has plenty to prove after missing the 2018 World Cup through injury – age means this is also likely to be his only chance on the global stage.
Msakni isn’t well known by audiences outside Tunisia or the middle east. His playing career in Europe extends to a short loan at KAS Eupen in Belgium in 2019, having first made his name at domestic giants Esperance and then taking his career to the Qatar Stars League in 2013.
Arguably the most internationally recognisable name in the Tunisia ranks thanks to a spell in the Premier League with Sunderland several years ago, as well as his appetite for spectacular goals.
The 31-year-old hasn’t played a lot of international football this year because of injury and missed the Arab Cup at the end of 2021. But he captained the side throughout much of qualifying, albeit been forced to miss the final playoff against Mali, and is the leading scorer in the current squad.
If Msakni and Khazri are the big name stars hoping to make an impact for potentially the last time on this stage, 25-year-old Aissa Laidouni represents the best of the next generation.
The French-born midfielder didn’t make his international debut until March 2021 but already has hardly missed a minute for his country – he wasn’t selected for the mid-season Arab Cup. He will give an extra layer of protection in midfield and has tasted plenty of domestic success with Ferencvaros.
If Tunisia need a moment of magic from an unpredictable but talented source, Manchester United youngster Hannibal Mejbri might just be the answer. He has been ‘phenomenal’ on loan in the EFL Championship, according to Birmingham manager John Eustace and already has 18 caps.
Still only 19, Hannibal was born in France but committed himself to Tunisia in 2021 and played a major role in reaching the Arab Cup final that year. He is unlikely to start at the World Cup, but has so much natural talent that having impact off the bench is distinctly possible.
Tunisia typically operate a fluid 4-3-3 formation that can become a 4-5-1 when out of possession or in games against better sides, like they will face in France and Denmark.
Tunisia predicted XI: Dahmen; Drager, Talbi, Bronn, Abdi; Sassi, Laidouni, Ben Romdhane; Slimane, Khazri, Msakni
Tunisia have endured a mixed 2022 overall. The year started with them reaching the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, which has been about their level in the tournament since last winning the competition in 2004 but was a step back from a semi-final appearance in 2019.
More recently, they won the invitational Kirin Cup in Japan over the summer, impressive beating full strength Chile and Japan sides without conceding a goal. The latter, who have hosted the competition since 1978, had beaten fellow World Cup qualifiers Ghana 4-1 in their semi-final.
A heavy defeat to Brazil in September is less ideal, but arguably understandable. On reflection, Kadri claimed that Tunisia ‘respected’ the Selecao too much and were unable to play their own game.
Tunisia’s last five results (all competitions)
Brazil 5-1 Tunisia
Tunisia 1-0 Comoros
Japan 0-3 Tunisia
Chile 0-2 Tunisia
Botswana 0-0 Tunisia
Tunisia would have to pull off a significant shock to get out of what is a tough Group D.
Even if one of France or Denmark underperform, they still face competition from a reasonable Australia side also looking to pounce, which only makes it doubly challenging.
Tunisia have never gone further than a World Cup group stage and that is unlikely to change in Qatar over the coming weeks. Another early exit awaits them unless something unexpected happens.
Prediction: Group stage exit