In 1990 Cameroon were rightly lauded for their swashbuckling run to the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup. Their flair, power and pace impressed and surprised in equal measure. Many regard Cameroon’s excellent World Cup in Italy as the breakthrough moment for African football. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story as in the late 1970s Tunisia, one of the best teams in Africa, played some wonderful football in Argentina’s 78 World Cup. Their short pass and move game may have been world’s away from the powerful game Cameroon adopted twelve years later but it was almost as effective.
Thirteen years before Italia 90, Tunisia were preparing for their final World Cup qualifying match against north African rivals Egypt. After picking up four points from their games against Nigeria and losing away in Cairo, Tunisia knew that only a win in Tunis would be enough to seal their place in the World Cup Finals as sole African representative. And win they did, in style, defeating the Egyptians 4-1 in front of a partizan crowd. Those who feel atmosphere at football is calmed negatively by an Athletics track should take a look at the celebrations following Tunisia’s 3rd that effectively qualified the nation for their first ever World Cup Finals. The track merely gave players a place to celebrate and for cameramen to frolic in.
Tunisia in 1978 were only the fourth African side to play in a World Cup Finals – after Egypt (1930), Morocco (1970) and Zaire (1974). None of these sides had performed particularly well in their outings, the only bright spot a Moroccan draw with Bulgaria in Mexico 1970. The Carthage Eagles would record a couple of firsts for Africa in this tournament. They were the first country to be managed by an African at a World Cup (Abdelmajid Chetali) and they also became the first African nation to win a game at a World Cup Finals when they came from behind to beat Mexico by three goals to one.
Despite winning their first match the Tunisians were always going to find qualification to the next stage tough as they found themselves not only up against current world champions West Germany but also Poland who had finished third in the previous World Cup. Tunisia’s second game was against a Polish side including Lato and Boniek and as expected they lost, but only narrowly by a solitary Grzegorz Lato goal to nil. There was certainly no shame in this defeat, as the mighty Brazil had lost in the World Cup ;74 third placed match by the same scoreline (to the same goalscorer). However, the Tunisians will always wonder what could have been. Late in the game they almost scored what would have become an all time classic World Cup goal. Unfortunately the ball hit the underside of the bar and bounced the wrong side of the line.
The unfortunate Tunisians came up against the current World Cup holders West Germany in their final group game and gave a good account of themselves. A sterling 0-0 draw with goalkeeper Mokhtar Naili making some fine saves wearing what appear to be brown leather gloves. The scoreless draw wasn’t enough for Tunisia to progress to the next stage but it was enough for the Tunisians to cement their place in African football history. West Germany and Poland qualified in first and second place.
The 1978 World Cup goes down as Tunisia’s best World Cup performance to date. Inspired by 1977 Africa Footballer of the Year Tarak Dhiab the side almost managed to shock the world by sneaking through the group stages. Dhiab played over one hundred times for Tunisia and played his last international in 1990 as a 36 year old, captaining his country against England who were warming up for Italia 90. Just like West Germany twelve years before, England didn’t heed the African warning and were almost undone in the quarter finals by the Indomitable Lions. Despite often playing in differing styles the threat from north Africa remains just as strong as from the sub-Saharans.
Flickr Photo Credit: philippelemoine