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'Tunisia have nothing to lose vs England' - How World Cup underdogs plan to upset favourites

6:00 AM GMT+8 18/06/2018
Anice Badri Tunisia Turkey 01062018
The Eagles of Carthage are back on the world stage after an absence of 12 years and will be hoping to get inspiration from World Cups past

England will always have 1966 and Tunisia will always have 1978. They were the first African and Arab team ever to win a match at a World Cup finals.

It inspired a generation of Tunisian boys to strike out and follow their dreams in football. Dino Maamria – proud Tunisian and manager of League Two side Stevenage – was seven years old when Temime Lahzami, Tarak Dhiab and their cohorts made history in Argentina.

“That inspired me and had a big impact on my life,” says Dino, who first moved to England as a young striker with Burnley in 1996. “For lot of Tunisia players and a lot of Tunisian people, that what football really did. It inspired a generation.”

Down 1-0 at half-time to Mexico, three second-half goals sent the country wild with jubilation. A few days later they held world champions West Germany to a scoreless draw.

Defeat to Poland, however, meant Tunisia’s World Cup would be over before the knockout phase commenced. But what they achieved carries a legacy to this very day. They haven't hit the heights in their tournament appearances since then, including a fruitless campaign in 1998 when they also faced England in the group stages.

“When we talk about England, we talk about the 1966 World Cup. For Tunisians they talk about 1978 team because it was brilliant,” says Dino. “They played fantastic football and had a great campaign.

“Only one team qualified from Africa; it’s not like now where there are six. They had to go through a gruelling campaign to qualify. People are still talking about it now.”

So while some England players will go to this World Cup with images of Bobby Moore being held aloft by his team-mates while clutching the Jules Rimet Trophy, Tunisia’s squad will be well aware of the ground their forbearers broke.

When the draw was made, many in England could have been forgiven for thinking that they had come up trumps. Panama – with all due respect – should be easily despatched and Tunisia’s recent lack of success could have fans thinking they too are an easy touch.

But World Cup preparations have been productive. They fought back from 2-0 down to draw with Portugal and only lost narrowly to Spain as a result of Iago Aspas’s 84th-minute goal.

Qualification – for the first time since 2006 – was relatively straightforward and a compact well-organised team under coach Nabil Maaloul will not struggle under a burden of expectation.

“It’s a tough game against England, and a tough group but they’re very optimistic and they’re looking forward to it,” says Dino.

“They had good preparation before the World Cup. There’s a positive vibe there.

“They’re going to be looking for a point against England and beat Panama in the second game. That might be enough for them to go to the second round. That’s their main focus.”

A pre-tournament cruciate ligament injury to star forward Youssef Msakni robbed Maaloul of his chief threat up front and that means Wahbi Khazri – once of Sunderland – is likely to feature as a false nine instead.

Tunisia’s ability to repel attacks will impress observers but as a result of that Msakni injury they could well struggle to score many.

“They’re tactically quite switched on,” says Dino, “and they’re quite physical. They play passing football and they’ve got technical players that play in European leagues.

“Where they are lacking is that Msakni was their biggest threat going forward and he did his ACL just before the World Cup and that’s going to be a big blow to them. They are going to rely on Khazri and he’s not actually a centre forward.

“They’re going to be compact, they play with one front man. They’ll struggle to score a goal but I think they are capable of nicking a draw.”

While England and Roberto Martinez’s Belgium will be expected to carry the day in Group G, Tunisia are quietly optimistic of making waves. And should that happen, then Dino and his countrymen will be ecstatic.

“It’ll be absolutely fantastic,” Maamria says. “It’ll be a carnival. The Tunisian nation is obsessed with football. It’s their first sport. They think they can get something because England always struggle at tournaments.

“Being the first game of the World Cup, they are thinking they are going to try and capitalise on it. They have nothing to lose after that."

After more than two decades in Britain, Dino admits to some split loyalties when these two nations collide. 

“If England win, that’s great,” he continues. “I hope they win the World Cup. I love it so much I decided to stay and settle here. I had to work very hard to get where I am and I want to stay in this country.

“Ideally, I want England to win the World Cup and Tunisia to qualify for the second round.”