Tunisia Has The Coolest Nickname In The Whole World Cup
11:50 AM EST on November 9, 2022
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Tunisia is, by FIFA's reckoning anyway, one of the weaker teams to make the 2022 World Cup: ranked 30th in the world, it is well south of a handful of teams that didn't make it at all. Most of its players play their club soccer in lesser leagues, apart from a wee fistful kicking around Ligue 1 in France. The upcoming Champions League knockout stage will include none of them; for that matter, as far as I can tell only one guy on the whole team even plays for a current Europa League club.
And, Tunisia was drawn into a top-heavy Group D, with the preposterously stacked France and a very, very good Denmark as overwhelming favorites to advance. This amounts to an almost certainly brief and undistinguished trip to Qatar for Tunisia's guys, except for the couple of them who play their club ball there. Realistically speaking, triumph for Tunisia at the World Cup probably means beating Australia (38th in the world, according to FIFA); if they take points off of either of the European teams, it will be a huge shock.
On the other hand! Tunisia has the very coolest team nickname of any World Cup participant: The Eagles of Carthage. Holy smokes, that rocks. The frickin' Eagles of Carthage! In a tournament where most of the teams are just "The Blues" or "The Reds," being the Eagles of Carthage is in itself a win.
The Eagles of Carthage (!) feature a handful of reasonably wily and punchy veterans who were around for Tunisia's trip to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, where they . . . well, where they lost to two European clubs and took points only off the other lousy non-European team in their group. That's something! It's not nothing. England needed a stoppage-time match-winner from Harry Kane to escape a 1–1 draw against the Eagles of Carthage; Belgium smushed the Eagles of Carthage pretty good, but the Eagles of Carthage did manage a pair of goals along the way.
An underdog team that attacks and makes things interesting beats the hell out of one without the dignity to do more than turtle up and lose 0–1. Here's hoping that's how the Eagles of Carthage will approach things in 2022, before returning to Carthage (presumably on the wing).
Who Is Their (Co-)Main Guy?
Youssef Msakni is the most-capped member of Tunisia's active national squad, and the captain, and when you see him he'll be up front for the Eagles of Carthage, hunting goals. That is about as clean a Main Guy resumé as a World Cup participant can get.
The 32-year-old Msakni has played most of his club career in the Qatar Stars League; he's presently doing it for league-leading Al-Arabi, on loan from third-place Al-Duhail. (I suppose this means he can show his Tunisia mates around Doha.) He's a stylish, clever goal-seeker with a fun sizzle-reel full of feints, shot-fakes, audacious half-volleys, and rude, irresponsible Dutch-angled strikes; check out the weird wrong-foot volley . . . thing at 1:30 in the video below:
I love that. I love it! It is topped only by the ludicrous outside-of-the-boot flick at 1:45, after Msakni coolly gathers a lobbed through-ball with his chest, at a sprint, in a crowd of three defenders and a teammate, dropping it directly at his own feet. Sick.
Msakni missed the entirety of Tunisia's 2018 run in Russia; the poor guy injured his ACL in literally his last league game of the season, and missed six months of soccer. I dunno that his presence would have boosted Tunisia's incredibly long odds of playing through to the knockout stages—they drew a nightmare group, after all, with both Belgium and England—but surely the Eagles of Carthage (I can't stop saying it) are better with him than without.
Tunisia failed to qualify in both '10 and '14, the only other World Cups of Msakni's professional career. Africa is one of the world's most difficult qualifying gauntlets—Mo freaking Salah will miss Qatar—and Msakni is 32 already. What I am getting at here is this may very well be the only shot at World Cup glory Youssef Msakni ever will get.
Who Is Their (Other Co-)Main Guy?
Wahbi Khazri, Tunisia's No. 10, scored two of the Eagles' (which Eagles? Why, the Eagles of Carthage, of course) five goals back in the 2018 group stage, netting in stoppage time in a lopsided loss to Belgium, and tapping in what turned out to be the match-winner in the 66th minute against Panama. Khazri, who like several other French-born Tunisia internationals does his club work in France, is a free-kick ace, a ruthless sniper from distance, and a dashing, stubborn dribbler, who wants to keep the ball on his feet at all costs until he can make something cool happen with it. This is a wonderful combination.
This absolute madman confidently stepped into and scored a strike from nearly 70 damn meters back in 2021, against Metz, when he was playing with Saint-Etienne. Beyond midfield! Beyond the midfield circle! In the 16th damn minute!
That's not even the only midfield heat-check in this man's 2021 sizzle reel. Hell yeah.
I suppose it's possible Khazri and Msakni could be awkward attacking partners: both right-footed, both apparently more comfortable playing toward the left and cutting inside to shoot, both utterly without conscience with the ball at their feet and some number of defenders between them and a preposterous shot attempt. Tunisia, though, is not Brazil: It is not so stuffed with world-class attackers that it can consider leaving its second-best player on the bench because his preferred position and role overlap with the main guy. In all likelihood Tunisia will simply have two voraciously hungry right-footed goal-hunters out there. That's fine and cool; Khazri can handle all the shooting-from-outer-space duties.
Where’s The Beef?
Which teams or players does Tunisia not like? Do Tunisia’s players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.
Tunisia has lively rivalries with its North African fellows, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco. Of those three, only Morocco qualified for Qatar. It's not totally out of the question the Atlas Lions (another incredibly cool nickname) could escape a wobbly Group F—Canada and Croatia are vulnerable, and group favorite Belgium appears wounded and aging—but they could not meet the Eagles of Carthage before the semifinals under any circumstances. I hope it will not offend fans of either of these fun and decent national teams to observe that this is very unlikely.
This probably does not qualify as "beef," but it's a bizarre and hilarious scandal and I had to work it into this blog somehow. Back in January, an African Cup of Nations match between Tunisia (Eagles of Carthage) and Mali (Eagles [not of Carthage]) collapsed into lunacy when the referee, Janny Sikazwe of Zambia, twice blew the full-time whistle with Mali leading 1–0 and regular time remaining—the first instance in the 86th damn minute!
After the second and final instance—which came with at least 10 seconds remaining in regular time—the teams left the pitch; around 40 minutes later, Tunisia's players refused to come back out to play the game to the end of its full time, and the non-Carthage Eagles were declared the winners by forfeit.
Make of that what you will. AFCON officials later said the referee had been suffering from severe heat stroke and dehydration, blew the whistle in disorientation, and had to be hospitalized afterward. On the other hand, that referee also was suspended back in 2018 after some highly suspicious calls and decisions in an African Champions League game. Corrupt referees can get heat stroke and dehydration, it's true. In any case, that AFCON loss did not prevent Tunisia from qualifying for Qatar. I cannot help but wonder if a certain Zambian might not be among the people most relieved by that.
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is Tunisia’s best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
As I write this, I have just learned that Sadio Mané, Senegal's main guy and perhaps the main-est main guy in the entire field, will likely miss the World Cup due to an injury he suffered on Tuesday. That bit of absolutely horrible news does not bear all that directly (or much at all) on Tunisia. But it is a sobering reminder that many of the national-team rosters are not yet finalized, and there are still club-level games to play before the World Cup break; plenty of ligaments may explode between now and then.
So I am not 100-percent certain that 19-year-old midfielder Hannibal Mejbri, presently at Birmingham City on loan from Manchester United, will be present at the World Cup. Maybe his leg will fall off on Friday, against Sunderland. I hope not.
Mejbri is a fun and feisty player, an all-action attacking midfielder who maybe hasn't yet played with quite enough composure or command to be a real No. 10. But, like, he's frickin' 19. I couldn't walk from here to there with composure or command at 19. For now Mejbri's pace and creativity shine most brightly when he's picking up the ball near or behind midfield and advancing it at his feet; he's eager to run at and past defenders and/or smash into them, like a floppy-haired Gavi. Like the Spanish wonderteen, Mejbri is quick and aggressive enough that opponents often can't help but foul him a lot. In the attacking third, he shows nice touch on corner-kicks and crosses, and will occasionally pull out slick close-quarters stuff like the sick little give-and-go return ball at 0:55 below:
That's the stuff, I think, that portends possible genuine No. 10–hood down the line for Mejbri. Also I just think it's extremely cool.
The simple fact of being a teen on a huge club's books—even Manchester United's!—is something, even while he's out on loan in the Championship. I like to envision Mejbri whirling through France's somewhat patchworked midfield a couple weeks from now, an eager-beaver agent of chaos, and that chaos creating a couple of openings for Khazri and Msakni they otherwise might not get, with the whole world watching. And then I like to imagine either United recalling Mejbri with an intent to make use of him, or some midsize Premier League club (Everton?) getting visions of him doing the same to, well, United. That would be fun.
Also, we are talking about a guy named Hannibal who plays for the Eagles of Carthage. Fuckin' hell yeah.
David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 41.8
James Rodriguez Mode Probability Score: 18.6
Fun Geographical Fact
Ras ben Sakka is the name of this little finger of land, sticking out into the Mediterranean:
That's the northernmost point on the African continent. Seems like it would be cool to stand there, face south, and know that the entire landmass of Africa is in front of you. If any readers have experienced this and would like to enumerate any reasons why it is not in fact cool, please shut the hell up!
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
Pretty sweet flag, gotta say. The red is bold, the white breaks it up nicely so that the effect isn't oppressive, the elements are very satisfyingly proportioned, the crescent-and-star combo is just very frickin' cool. Good flag.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
The national anthem of Tunisia is "Humat al-Hima," which translates as "Defenders of the Homeland" in English.
The tune is jaunty and reasonable, if undistinguished. It seems very easy to sing, especially in a big rowdy group, like fans at a soccer match, and it seems natural as a march in a parade. The lyrics are about what you expect from a national anthem: We will die for the homeland, there's no room for traitors on this bus, et cetera. It does contain one absolutely great line, though: "As a nation we inherited/ arms like granite towers." What a line! That makes this a good anthem.
Notable Moment In World Cup History
Both the Eagles of Carthage and Panama (the Canal Men) had been eliminated by the time they met for Group G's final match in 2018, so strictly speaking there wasn't much at stake for either team. Still, the 2–1 win, in an action-packed game, was Tunisia's first in a World Cup since 1978, a gap wide enough for those who witnessed the last one to wonder, with good reason, whether it might be, y' know, the last one.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
France rampages through the group stage, crushes all comers in the knockout rounds, and reaches the Final. On the eve of the match, as reparations for Tunisia's 75 years of violent subjugation by the French from 1881 to 1956, the Eagles of Carthage claim a right to France's national soccer glory—and, in fact, demand that France must add Tunisia's players, wear Tunisia's kits, and fly Tunisia's flag during the match. Stunned by the sheer indisputable moral force of the former colony's claim, the international community can only stand by as the French national team, newly Tunisiated, smash England 8–1. (No actual Tunisian players see the pitch before the 87th minute.)