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.”
On June 2, 1978, #Tunisia made their #WorldCup bow in Rosario against #Mexico, a day to down in history https://t.co/NCkLTwW8oj | #TunisiavsEngland #RussiaWorldCup #WorldCup2018 pic.twitter.com/utkYZcbTxK— Arab News (@arabnews) June 18, 2018
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.”