DUBAI: When Tunisia landed in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, no Arab or African nation had ever won a match at the competition.
Egypt had been the first to try their luck at the second edition of the tournament, the 1934 World Cup in Italy, and though they played commendably against a strong Hungarian team, they ended up losing 4-2 in controversial circumstances.
Morocco’s task in 1970 was perhaps even more difficult. They, too, gave it their best shot, but understandably came up short.
In their opening match, they took a shock lead against a formidable West German side that would eventually reach the semi-finals, only to lose to two goals by the legendary duo of Uwe Seeler and Gerd Muller. In the second match they crashed 3-0 to a Teofilo Cubillas-inspired Peru, before a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria saw them head home on a relatively positive note.
On June 2, 1978, it was Tunisia’s chance to break the duck. To say they were given little chance would be an understatement. Up against them in Group 2 were reigning world champions West Germany; Poland, who had finished third in 1974; and, first up, a Mexican team that had won the CONCACAF Championship a year earlier and was expected to easily post two early points on the board.
However, in the days when teams like Tunisia, and others from Africa and Asia, would rock up to the World Cup as completely unknown quantities, coach Abdelmajid Chetali had quietly built a formidable team that was gaining in momentum.
Only three months before the start of the World Cup, they had reached the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations only to lose 1-0 to eventual winners Ghana. Perhaps more indicative of their growing pedigree was the performance that had earlier confirmed their qualification to Argentina 78.
The first three rounds of the CAF qualification campaign had already seen Tunisia overcome Morocco, Algeria and Guinea to reach the final, round robin group stage with Egypt and Nigeria. This was played on a home and away basis, and going into the last match, Tunisia found themselves two points adrift of Egypt and needing to beat the group leaders to qualify for their first-ever World Cup. A draw would have seen Egypt return to football’s ultimate stage for the first time in 44 years.
It looked a tall order for Tunisia, but they would pull off a trick that, in the coming months, would become familiar to anyone who underestimated their capabilities.
A barnstorming 4-1 at Stade Olympique El Menzah in Tunis on Dec. 11, 1977, is now part of Tunisian football folklore. The sheer power and versatility of their display against an Egyptian team that had beaten them 3-2 in Cairo just over two weeks earlier should have been a stark warning to future opponents.
If the Mexicans had seen a video recording of that match, they certainly were not paying too much attention. On that memorable day, Tunisia were simply devastating, playing a brand of football that hinted at what was to come.
But on their World Cup debut in Argentina, things did not go immediately to plan. At Estadio Gigante de Arroyito in Rosario, Tunisia had started tentatively, as if overly conscious of their underdog status. And when Mexico took the lead through captain Arturo Vazquez Ayala from the penalty spot — after Amor Jebali had handled — just before halftime, the match seemed to be following the expected script.
Whatever Chattel said at halftime, however, would inspire Tunisia to deliver its — at that point certainly — finest-ever 45 minutes of football. And what had weighed heavily on the players’ shoulders in the first half was suddenly and gloriously cast aside.
The Mexicans simply did not know what hit them with Tunisia, orchestrated by the brilliant Tarak Dhiab, ripping them apart with a sensational display of one-touch, counterattacking football.
The equaliser came on 55 minutes when defender Ali Kaabi, at the end of a flowing move, controlled on the edge of the Mexican penalty area and curled a low shot past Jose Pilar Reyes in goal.
The Tunisians were rampant, but for 25 minutes the match hung in the balance.
With 10 minutes left, another devastating sequence of passes prompted by captain Temime Lahzami and the irrepressible Dhiab saw Nejib Ghommidh finish expertly to give Tunisia a priceless lead, the goalscorer himself famously getting a kiss from a photographer behind the goal on live television.
There would be no way back for the shellshocked Mexicans, and the mercy bullet came in the 87th minute as another Tunisian defender, Mokhtar Dhouib, stormed into the penalty area to finish into the roof of the net; 3-1 and history made.
Tunisia had just recorded the first-ever World Cup win by an Arab or African nation, and in their very first attempt no less.
With West Germany and Poland having played out a goalless draw the previous day, Tunisia, remarkably, were top of their group after the first round of matches.
They could now dream of an even bigger prize, qualification to the second round, which hours earlier would have been deemed a laughable notion.
Up next were a formidable Poland team that included 1974 World Cup top scorer Grzegorz Lato, elegant captain Kazimierz Deyna and a young rising star by the name of Zbigniew Boniek.
Sadly there would be no repeat of the result against Mexico, though Tunisia’s performance was no less heroic.
Just as in their first match, Tunisia conceded moments before halftime, a horrible miskick by Kaabi allowing Lato to volley home from close range.
Tunisia came storming back in the second half and the World Cup was denied one of its greatest ever goals when a quite astonishing passing move ended with Lahzami volleying past Jan Tomaszewski in the Polish goal only to see the ball strike the crossbar and bounce back into the goalkeeper’s arms.
The captain threw his arms to the heavens in disbelief.
Despite a flurry of late close calls for Tunisia, Poland held on to a win they could scarcely have imagined would be this difficult when the draw was made.
Tunisia could still qualify to the next stage provided they beat the West German team of Sepp Maier, Bertie Vogts, Rainer Bonhof and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Though the current reigning champions, Helmut Schon’s team was a shadow of the Franz Beckenbauer-led one that had claimed the big prize against Holland four years earlier, and in hindsight, perhaps a Tunisian shock would not have been the miracle it might have seemed at the time.
And they came close, too, but a commendable 0-0 final score was not enough for a top-two finish in the group and progress to the second group stage.
Their historic feats in Argentina would pave the way for the likes of Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia to record famous victories in future World Cups.
The Eagles of Carthage may have just fallen short, but Chetali, Dhiab and the rest of Tunisia’s beloved Golden Generation had ensured their names will forever echo in African and Arab football history.