Will Tunisian Soccer Ever Be Great Again?

Why you should care

What did it take back in ’78 for Tunisia to win Africa’s first World Cup match? Inspired play and a coach willing to bet his beard.

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When Tunisia arrived at the FIFA World Cup in Argentina in 1978, it was a nation on a mission. At that point, only three African countries — Egypt (1934), Morocco (1970) and Democratic Republic of Congo, known as Zaire at the time (1974) — had qualified for the competition, and all had left with nothing more than straight losses, glorified participation trophies and stories to tell their grandchildren.

In a sport dominated by Europe and South America, there was no reason to believe that Tunisia could end the trend with its first kick at the cup. But Abdelmajid Chetali, the North African nation’s rookie coach, had other plans.

This World Cup, it’s Tunisia that’s once again the north star of Africa as the continent’s top-ranked team.

A mustachioed former midfielder known for his precision passes and slick dribbling, Chetali made a bold proclamation: He wouldn’t shave his leathery mug until Tunisia had won a World Cup match. What follows is a tale of African soccer evolution, a leader’s fall amid a continental rise and a quest to return to glory. And that quest continues on Monday night in Volgograd Arena, southwest Russia’s towering cathedral of cable-framed football fanaticism, when Tunisia takes on the fading glory that is England in first-round action.

But back to Chetali’s facial hair. Given the daunting competition in Tunisia’s group that Argentinian summer of ’78, there was every likelihood the coach’s neatly trimmed mustache would soon get whiskery company. After all, the draw included reigning World Cup champs West Germany; Poland, which had placed third in 1974 and 1982; and powerhouse Mexico.

First up, Mexico. After trailing 1–0 at halftime, the red-clad Carthage Eagles roared back to capture the continent’s first-ever World Cup win, 3-1. In Game 2, Tunisia barely missed — falling 1-0 to Poland — before holding the mighty West Germans to a 0-0 draw. Poland and West Germany advanced to the second round, with Mexico sneaking out of the country on an unannounced 3:00 a.m. flight to avoid angry fans.

Tunisia returned home with a beardless coach, heads held high and plans to advance further in 1982. “Though we could not go through, we went home happy,” midfielder Tarak Dhiab, the 1977 African footballer of the year, told BBC Sport in 2002.

Unfortunately for that historic Tunisian club, increased opportunity for African football meant tougher competition. Thanks to the Carthage Lions’ performance in South America, when the World Cup expanded in 1982 from 16 to 24 teams, FIFA awarded the continent a second qualifying spot. Today, a minimum of five of the 32 World Cup spots are allocated to African nations, and in 2026, when the tournament expands to 48 nations, that figure will jump to nine.

From 1980 to 1992, Tunisia qualified for only two major tournaments — the 1982 African Cup and 1988 Summer Olympics — and was dismissed both times in the first round. A brazen 1987 coup d’etat by then Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led to the swift ousting of ailing President Habib Bourguiba. And while the change of guard was bloodless, a new era of corruption and repression saw the Tunisian republic stunted — on the pitch and off. It wasn’t until the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 that Ben Ali resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia.

Gettyimages 51958427

Tunisian national team soccer players prior to their game against Mexico at Rosario stadium in Argentina. From left, standing: Mohsen Jandoubi, Mokhtar Naili, Hamadi Agrebi, Mokhtar Dhouib, Ali Kaabi and Khaled Gasmi.

Source BECHIR MANNOUBI/Getty

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s soccer neighbors were blossoming. In the 1982 World Cup, Cameroon went undefeated with three draws in group play, and Algeria defeated West Germany and Chile. Still, both teams failed to advance. In 1986, Morocco became the first African nation to reach the Round of 16. Since then, Nigeria has matched that feat three times and Algeria once. Other countries have made the quarterfinals — Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). Tunisia qualified in 1998, 2002 and 2006 but failed to advance past the group stage each time.

This year, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia are all seeking to rewrite history in Russia. Quarterfinal appearances would be a success, but a semifinal berth, for any African nation, could have long-lasting ripple effects. None of the five African clubs in Russia are in the top 20 of FIFA’s world rankings and, so far, the three teams to make the quarterfinals hail from sub-Saharan Africa. But North Africa represents the majority in Russia this summer. Egypt is making its first appearance in 28 years, with Morocco back after 20 years. This World Cup, it’s Tunisia — once again the north star of Africa as the continent’s top-ranked team — that seems to be the veteran.

With standout midfielder Youssef Msakni nursing a knee injury, Tunisia is already at a disadvantage. The club’s manager, Nabil Maloul, told reporters last month that Msakni’s absence “is like Argentina missing Messi.” The 23-year-old midfielder Ellyes Skhiri, who stars for French club Montpellier, will look to fill Msakni’s cleats. He is largely unknown outside France, with breakout potential in Russia. Tunisia probably will lose to Belgium, but after England, desperately clinging to its status as a footballing giant, a win against Panama seems within reach. And what’s the second step toward rewriting history?

Round Two.

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