Saturday, May 13, 2006

#27: Les Aigles de Carthage


Where? Little nudge between Libya and Algeria, just across the Mediterranean from Italy.

How big? Not too big. About the size of Georgia, with population about the size of Michigan.

Something interesting from the CIA Factbook? Tunisia has the lowest rate of AIDS in all of Africa. Oddly, unlike the rest of the continent, this hasn't really affected the growth rate, which is pretty stagnant.

Any geopolitical import? Tunisia is a rather moderate voice in the Islamic world, mainly because of its proximity to Europe and its reliance on tourism for its economy. Tunisia has offered freedoms for women unmatched among Islamic nations. Hopefully this becomes the model.

Non-nerd fun? Well, not exactly non-nerd, but Tunisia was where many scenes in the Star Wars sextet were filmed. Believe it.

And soccer.

Tunisia has a pretty decent soccer history. This is the country's fourth appearance, and third consecutive, in the World Cup. Tunisia also won the African Nations Cup just in 2004. Their greatest moment came in the 1978 World Cup, where Tunisia became the first African team to win a match, beating Argentina 3-1.

Much of their success might be credited to their manager, Roger Lemerre, who led France to the World Cup title in 1998. Since coming on after Korea/Japan, he led Tunisia to the African Nations Cup, and led them through a tough path to the Cup this year. Lemerre has been a calming influence on the side, since before him Tunisia had five coaches in a little over a year.

Drawn in a region with another traditional power, Morocco, qualification was definitely not a sure thing. An early loss on the road to Guinea made things more difficult for the Eagles of Carthage. After 4 matches, they only had 5 points. But then Tunisia went on a 5 game winning streak, positioning them only to need a draw against Morocco at home to clinch qualification. Down 2-1 at the half, things looked dire. Then, in the 69th minute, Adel Chadli scored to equalize. The draw held up, and Tunisia was headed to Germany.

Tunisia's side isn't filled with big name players, but there is talent there, and professional experience (mostly in France). Some of the best players are on the back line - which could cause some trouble for the forwards of their group opponents. Tunisia has a couple of nationalized Brazillians that bring some flavor to the strong defense.

Probably the one player to watch is Hatem Trabelsi, a right defender for Ajax. He's not afraid to push forward, and at times is a bit of a field general (odd for a right back). He could cause some matchup problems for Spain and Ukraine on long cornered balls.

I don't think the cup will be very kind to Tunisia, however. Group H, I think, is one of the easier groups to predict, because I think Spain and Ukraine are significantly better than Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. The opener for Tunisia may end up the difference between 3rd and 4th in the group. But you never know with Lemerre - he might stun someone.

The opener against Saudi Arabia in Munich - should be an interesting crowd, honestly, in that big new arena. I think both teams are OK, but neither is much better than the other. Two goals a piece for a draw.

Tunisia's second match against Spain should be much tougher. I know most people think that Spain is going to disappoint, like they always seem to in major tournaments. Not me. I think Spain will be one of the best teams in the cup, seriously. And they blow out Tunisia 3-0.

In the final match, Tunisia will suffer from a hangover from the Spain match, and Shevchenko finally gets his legs under him, scoring twice in the first half before getting subbed at the break. The score holds up, 2-0 Ukraine.

So a draw and two losses for 1 point, -5 goal differential, and 2 goals, which actually matches Australia for 27th (so fix that down below). Kind of a disappointment, but I don't think they should expect too much more either. Lemerre gets canned after the cup and moves on to another French colony to try to qualify for the next cup.

If this were March Madness, Tunisia would be... a mid major who always seems to make the tournament, but hasn't ever put it together to advance. Maybe Winthrop or Murray State.

But I was supposed to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters... and a scoring threat that wasn't Brazillian!