Tunisia prepared to spring World Cup upset against England

(L to R) Tunisia's defender Yohan Benalouane, defender Hamdi Nagguez, defender Syam Ben Youssef, and defender Oussama Haddadi take part in a training session at the Olympic stadium El Menzah in the Tunisian capital on June 4, 2018, as part of the team's preparation for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia. (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2018

Tunisia prepared to spring World Cup upset against England

  • Tunisia face England in Group G on Monday evening
  • Tunisia will forever have a starring role in the history of Arab football, having recorded the region’s first win in a World Cup in 1978 when they beat Mexico 3-1

MOSCOW: It has been a long 12 years for Tunisian football fans.
And as their beloved Eagles of Carthage prepare to take on England in Monday’s Group G encounter, the weight of Arab expectation and the hopes of an entire region rest on the shoulders of Nail Maaloul’s charges.
After Saudi Arabia’s crushing defeat to hosts Russia in Thursday’s opening game and Morocco and Egypt both losing at the death to late goals in heartbreaking fashion, Arab fans are yet to experience the joy of a World Cup win in this year’s tournament.
Now it is up to Tunisia to get the region’s teams back on track.
Tunisia will forever have a starring role in the history of Arab football, having recorded the region’s first win in a World Cup in 1978 when they beat Mexico 3-1.
The problem for the Tunisians is that the national team has not done much since causing a stir 40 years ago in Argentina.
In the three World Cups they have reached since then, Tunisia still have not notched a second victory. And, after meeting England in Volgograd, Tunisia then take on Panama, playing in the World Cup for the first time, followed by heavily-fancied Belgium.
For football-obsessed Arab fans, there is a sense that the region’s teams have stagnated on the game’s biggest stage, a sense that has only grown after the Egypt and Morocco games.
But within their camp, the Tunisian players have a strong sense of belief. And they are raring to match the achievement of that famous team 40 long years ago and register another win — particularly against England.
“It’s a World Cup game, and in one game, anything is possible and anything can happen,” Tunisia’s central defender Yohan Benalouane said. “We are not here to take part, we are here to take over.
“We play good football,” Benalouane added, who plays with his “close friends” Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire at Leicester City and who will be lining up against him and his teammates this evening.
“Yes, it will be difficult for us, but it will be difficult for the other teams, too.”
Benalouane believes the key to stopping England will be to prevent Harry Kane from playing his natural game.
“Honestly, he is one of the very best strikers in the world. Harry can do everything and he has the technique to score from everywhere. We have to be focused on him. He’s that complete player that has everything in strong amounts.”




Meanwhile, Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul has singled out England's Dele Alli as his side's most dangerous opponent.
The confident coach, in his second spell as national team boss, said his side could beat England and open the door to progressing from the group stages and to the quarterfinals.
"Why not?" he told reporters ahead of his side's final training session in Volgograd on Sunday.
"Our team is ready," he added, referring to recent warm-up results where they drew with Portugal and lost narrowly to Spain.
"We played well in friendlies. We did well and we expect to do the same here."
But he stressed that to do well against England, Tunisia had to keep Alli quiet, and confessed he was an admirer of the 22-year-old Tottenham midfielder.
"He is a great player," said Maaloul. "He is a midfielder who can play anywhere: centre, forward or deep midfield, up front on his own or wide on the left.
"We know how easily Alli and Kane can find each other and their understanding so must divide them.
"The most dangerous thing for me is the way he sees the match and plays the last pass."
The Tunisian coach placed England among the favourites to win the World Cup despite their abject record in recent major tournaments.
The Three Lions failed to get out of their group in Brazil in 2014 and were humiliated by Iceland in Euro 2016 in France.
"I was in the stadium when they played Iceland," he said. "Now they are a more stronger side. The result is not going to be the same tomorrow.
"We have pressure and they have pressure to do well. We are representing Africa and the Arabic world. They are one of the favourites to win the World Cup."


Tunisia pose a much stronger threat in tonight’s game than when they were drawn in the same group as England and Belgium back in December. The world’s media instantly put Belgium and England through to the next round, dismissing the potential of upsets from Tunisia or Panama.
As the months have passed, however, the threat level from Tunisia has risen. Since qualifying, the Tunisian football federation’s recruitment drive has transformed the side, supplying new faces and fresh talent, while their build-up matches — credible draws against Portugal and Turkey and a narrow defeat to Spain — have shown exactly how they intend to play in Russia.
It is something Gareth Southgate has taken seriously in preparing his team for the challenge his young squad faces in Russia — he told his squad the starting line-up for the Tunisia game in advance.
“The players know the team for the first game already,” he said. “We have been working on a system of play we think suits the players we have available and the style of play we want to implement as well.
“From our fans’ point of view, they’re enjoying seeing young players come into the squad. Everyone at home wants England to win but they want to see them play well and enjoy their football and that’s what I want as a coach. So if we can marry those things and the environment is right, then we think results become part of that process.”

Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

Updated 18 November 2018

Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

LONDON: Jaka Ihbeisheh’s eyes glisten as he recalls the moment his father first watched him play for Palestine. While the midfielder’s path to the national team may have been unconventional, those feelings of pride on his debut were wholly natural. From western Yugoslavia to the West Bank, Ihbeisheh’s journey was fueled by a desire to rediscover his roots.
Ihbeisheh was born in Ljubljana in 1986 to a Slovenian mother and a Palestinian father, who met while the latter was studying medicine in Croatia. His parents separated when he was seven years old, however, and his father moved back to Palestine.
It would be 18 years before he saw his father again.
An early love of football developed into a career for Ihbeisheh, who played for a number of Slovenian clubs. But while he lived out his childhood dream professionally, in his personal life there remained a nagging question about the whereabouts of his father.

In 2013, Ihbeisheh finally decided to try to reach out to the man from whom he had been estranged for three quarters of his life.
“After getting married, I started to question more where I was from and what my father had been doing,” Ihbeisheh explained. “We still had an envelope at home with an address on it so I decided to write a letter to him asking him if he wanted to meet me.
“I wrote three letters — in Slovenian, Croatian and English — and to be honest I had no idea if I would receive a reply.”
A month passed by with no response but then one day Ihbeisheh opened his Facebook account to see a friend request from someone whose name was written in Arabic.
“It was a strange moment after all those years but the date of birth matched my father’s so I knew it was him. We started to talk on Skype first, in Croatian. I was amazed he could remember but he said that because he studied medicine in the language he had never forgotten it. He still used Croatian medical textbooks.


Jaka Ihbeisheh in action for Slovenian side Rudar Velenje. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)

“After a few calls, my wife and I decided the time was right to go and visit him in Palestine. A lot of people said things like, ‘Don’t go there you are crazy, you will get shot’ — but my father lived there and I wanted to go and visit him. I was not afraid.”
That first trip was fraught with nervous excitement as Ihbeisheh made his way to his father’s homeland via his aunt’s house in Jordan. The midfielder had read and heard about the potential difficulties of the crossing into Palestine and his own passage was not straightforward.
“The security at the border was very heavy and when they asked me where I was going, I said Palestine. He said, ‘No, to Israel’ and I said, ‘No, Palestine’. Then he separated me and my wife and a soldier came and took me into a room to ask a lot of questions.
“They asked about my life, my father, my work, my wife. They went on Wikipedia to check if I really was a Slovenian professional footballer. Then they called my wife inside — they were checking our stories matched. They asked my wife the name of my coach and fortunately she knew it. We were there for five hours in all.”
For Ihbeisheh it was glimpse into the border woes that are a regular part of life for Palestinians, though happier experiences were to come.

“When we got off the bus, my father and all his family were there waiting and it was very emotional. Of course, we had a big meal to celebrate.
“After that trip, I knew that if the opportunity came up I would want to play international football for Palestine. My father didn’t need to say anything for me to know how much it would mean to him.”
When Ihbeisheh returned to Slovenia, the thought of playing for Palestine was still on his mind but he had no idea how to put the wheels in motion. Then a fortuitous meeting with a Palestinian diplomat’s son opened the door. Six months later, Ihbeisheh received a text inviting him to be involved with the squad for the first time.
“My first game was a friendly in Dubai ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup and it was an amazing day. When the national anthem played, I was so proud. You meet the other players and hear their stories, then you understand why it means so much to represent Palestine.
“Since then I have come to play every time they call me. I love being part of this team.”


Jaka Ihbeisheh meeting hero Xavi, and on the sidelines of a Rudar Velenje game. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)

Ihbeisheh went on to make a major impact at the Asian Cup in Australia, becoming the first Palestinian player to score at a major international tournament in a 5-1 defeat to Jordan.

But while that was a moment to savour, it paled in comparison to the first game he played in Palestine.
“It is a totally different occasion playing in Palestine. Everyone is supporting their country and they make incredible noise, they want to take pictures with us. We feel like heroes. It’s a shame that our home games are often moved away from our land and our people — I hope this stops.
“My first game there was a 0-0 draw with UAE in (the West Bank town) Al-Ram and of course it was the first time my father saw me play in Palestine. This was an emotional moment for him and for me. He said, ‘I was really proud to see you play but I am proud even when you are not playing. You are always representing your country.’
“The more I am called up to play for Palestine, the more I see him so, for us, football has an important meaning.”
That sentiment is true for many in Palestine, for whom football offers a temporary escape from difficult lives. Palestine may often appear to be a byword for conflict but Ihbeisheh has found the opposite to be true, the country uniting him with both his father and his heritage.
“I feel really sad about some of the things I hear, some of the experience my friends and family have. It is difficult to imagine for people like me who have always lived in Europe. You just hear the things on TV or radio but it is not the same as when my teammates tell me their stories.
“What each of them has gone through, and achieved, to play football for Palestine is inspirational. They know how football can help to give the supporters something, for a little bit of time they forget about all the worries. This is important to them, and me.
“I may not come from Palestine but when we are together as team-mates, there is no difference if you have lived your whole life in Palestine or outside of Palestine. We are all the same, we are family.”