Tunisia cast net wide to bolster World Cup squad

Tunis (AFP) – As Tunisia prepared this week for a pair of World Cup warm-up games, coach Nabil Maaloul had to juggle languages as he issued instructions on the training field, reflecting how wide the north Africa nation have cast their net.

After qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 2006 and drawing two behemoths, England and Belgium, as well as Panama in their group, Tunisian management made a push to strengthen their squad.

The result is that, in Russia, a quarter of Maaloul’s squad could be players raised in France. The four latest binational recruits don’t speak Arabic.

This week, Ellyes Skhiri, from French club Montpellier, Mouez Hassen, also based in France with second division Chateauroux, Seif-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes) and Yohan Benalouane, a central defender with Premier League side Leicester, are pulling on the Tunisian red for the first time in training ahead of two warm-up games against Iran on Friday and Costa Rica on Tuesday.

All are products of the French youth system. 

In response to criticism of these late recruits, the Tunisian federation issued a statement saying they had “cast their net wide” to “ensure all the conditions for success” in their tough group.

For this fifth Tunisian appearance in the World Cup, the goal, said the federation, is to find “harmony between local players from the Tunisian championship and those from the second generation established in Europe.”

“I’s very relaxed. We laugh a lot,” the Skhiri, who captain’s Skhiri told AFP.

– Playful moments –

Team management has responded to the controversy caused by the way they drafted newcomers into a squad which had come through the trials of African qualification, with videos showing players sharing their first meals together and playful moments in training.

“Everything has gone well with the new players,” Maaloul told reporters. “We are focusing our work on cohesion.”

Another recruit, who had previously avoided making a decision, young goalkeeper Mouez Hassen, said he waited until he became the first choice at Chateauroux, where he is on loan from Nice, before taking the step.

Hassen insists he has no regrets, even when he sees Sevilla striker Wissam Ben Yedder, who Tunisia also courted, called up by France.

“For sure, I played in a France youth team,” he said. “It’s the best football education you can have.”

“But opting for Tunisia, it’s a great happiness,” Mouez said.

“It was a choice of the heart, both my parents are from here,” he said, adding that he wanted to play alongside veteran goalie Aymen Mathlouthi. 

“When I was little, he was an idol of mine,” he said

The case of Ben Yedder excited a lot of speculation among Tunisian fans until the 27-year-old was called up by France this week.

Rani Khedira, the 24-year-old Augsburg midfielder and younger brother of Sami, German World Cup winner Sami, turned down Tunisian overtures.

“I was born and raised in Germany and I only speak German,” he explained.

Benalouane, who the Tunisians pursued for a while, finally accepted at the age of 30 after a mediocre season at Leicester.

– Big choices –

“Many players have been contacted very young, they hesitate, these are big choices to make at the start of careers,” said journalist Farouk Abdou, a specialist in football in the region.

“Mouez Hassen,  coming into a squad where he is unlikely to dislodge the indispensable Mathlouthi, is preparing for the future,” said Abdou.

In addition to the four new arrivals, the 28-man squad contains several second-generation players, born and raised in France, who had already made their Tunisian debut. They included Wahbi Khazri of Rennes, Naim Sliti of Dijon, Anice Badri who plays in Tunis for Esperance and Syam Ben Youssef of Turkish club Kasimpasa.

For Abdou, the need for these imports is a sign of the weakness of Tunisian football.

“Over the years, the very strong local base in Tunisia has disintegrated, weakened by two failures to reach the World Cup, financial problems for some big clubs and deficiencies in the development of young talent,” Abdou said.

But Tunisia is still a long way from emulating Algeria, which sent a squad largely made up of French nationals to the 2014 World Cup, or Morocco, “where 95 percent of the players in the team are bi-national,” Abdou said.

“This is a targeted recruitment to strengthen an already strong local core.”

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