DOHA: A stunning goal from Wahbi Khazri may have been enough to give the Carthage Eagles a heroic 1-0 victory over reigning champions France on Wednesday, but it was not enough to send the team into the latter stages of the World Cup for the first time.
While the win, just the third in total at the competition and a first against European opposition, was something to celebrate, Australia’s win over Denmark by the same scoreline means that Tunisia are heading home.
That was always the danger. Tunisia, bottom of the group before kickoff with just one point, needed nothing less than a win to have a chance of finally making it to the latter stages, at the sixth time of asking.
Even victory was not going to be a guarantee of progress, however, as there was still the other game in the group to contend with.
An Australian victory would send the Socceroos through. As well as needing to win, Tunisia wanted the other two to draw. The promised land always seemed far away.
Coach Jalel Kadri promised that he would resign if the team failed to progress, but he will not need an extended period of reflection to know that his team’s dreams were dashed by lack of firepower.
It had been obvious all through the competition. The opening 0-0 draw with Denmark was a fine, battling performance against a team ranked 10th in the world. It provided a solid platform for the second, and on paper most winnable, game against Australia.
Falling behind to a fine header from Mitchell Duke midway through the first half, Tunisia were unable to penetrate the defense of the hardworking Socceroos, and while the display was decent, there was a lack of bite in the final third.
That failure to score ultimately cost Tunisia their dream as it meant that their destiny was in the hands of others.
The effort was certainly there against France. After the disappointment of Saturday’s defeat, it was a revitalized version of Tunisia that tore at Les Bleus from the start.
A free-kick in the eighth minute was swung in by Khazri and guided home acrobatically by Nader Ghandri, only for the player to be correctly judged offside.
It was nevertheless encouraging for the North Africans and a warning for the French who, already through, made nine changes from their 2-1 win over Denmark.
Tunisia continued to make most of the running at Education City Stadium, even in the second half. The North Africans had won just two previous games at the World Cup but never stopped working hard in trying to make it three.
The goal duly arrived just before the hour thanks to Khazri, who ran at a static French defense before striking the ball past stand-in goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
It was the last act of the game for the exhausted star, who was then taken off, but he had given his team something to defend.
And yet, within moments, the news came through that Australia had taken the lead against Denmark and retaken second place in the group.
If that was not enough, Kylian Mbappe entered the fray for France and started running at the tiring Tunisian defense.
Tunisia held on despite a late strike from Antoine Greizmann, which was ruled out by VAR.
But by time it was chalked off, Australia had advanced and Tunisia denied.
The wait for the knockout stages will continue until 2026 at least, but if a goalscorer can be found in the meantime, the country may then finally make the promised land.