Last week FIFA released their latest world rankings and Tunisia, after a leap of nine places, now find themselves at No. 14, their highest ever, and indeed higher than any African or Arab team currently.
At No.13 sit England, the team they face in their opening match at the this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Tunisia could now well be on the cusp of a new golden era, 12 years after their last participation at football’s biggest stage.
The improvement has been dramatic. Tunisian Nabil Maaloul took over in April last year after the sacking of Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak and went about uniting a fractured squad before leading his country to Russia 2018.
This will be Tunisia’s fifth time at the World Cup, a record for an Arab nation that they will be sharing with Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
And like neighbors Morocco and Algeria, they have considerable World Cup pedigree as well.
In 1978, Abdelmajid Chetali’s superb team went into the World Cup in Argentina having finished third at the African Cup of Nations earlier that year.
In their first match in Rosario, they beat Mexico 3-1 in a devastating display of counter-attacking football that their opponents, it was clear, were wholly unprepared for. It was the first ever victory by an African or Arab team at a World Cup.
And they had a new superstar in Tarak Dhiab, whose outstanding performances saw Tunisia unexpectedly draw with reigning champions West Germany before a narrow, heartbreaking defeat to a strong Poland team meant they exited the competition in the group stages. Still, theirs was a pioneering campaign, proving for the first time that African and Arab teams could compete at that level. Four years later, Algeria would follow in their footsteps with a famous 2-1 win over West Germany before the disgrace of Gijon — when West Germany and Austria seemingly conspired to eliminate the north Africans with a 1-0 scoreline — put an end to their dreams.
Subsequent Tunisian qualifications, however, have not reached those heights. In 1998 in France, Tunisia lost 2-0 to England and 1-0 to Colombia before drawing 1-1 with Romania.
Four years later, under the Tunisian Ammar Souayah, they mirrored their results in France, losing twice to Russia and Japan by 2-0, and drawing 1-1 with Belgium.
Under Roger Lemerre, Tunisia experienced a renaissance, winning the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations at home. His team then qualified for the World Cup for the third consecutive time, matching the previous record held by Saudi Arabia, who themselves reached their fourth tournament in a row.
In Germany, yet again, Tunisia managed only one point; losing 3-1 to Spain, 1-0 to the Ukraine, and drawing 2-2 with Saudi Arabia thanks to an injury time equalizer by Radhi Jaidi.
After the heroics of Argentina, it is fair to say Tunisia’s World Cup performances have been a major disappointment. In Russia, it is those heroes of 1978 that Tunisia will be looking to emulate, and Maaloul will already be plotting an escape route from what was always going to be a difficult group.
Belgium and England, regardless of their proximity in world ranking to Tunisia, are firm favorites to qualify to the knockout stages.
Tunisia kick off their World Cup campaign, as they did in 1998, against England, in Volgograd on June 18. Six days later they will face an even tougher task against in Belgium in Moscow.
While Tunisia cannot be discounted in either of those matches, it is perhaps a shame that they play Panama, a team they have a better chance of beating, in their last group fixture, by which point they could already be out of contention.
It is then vital that the Arab nation gets something out of their two earlier matches, and they will then have the added bonus of knowing how many goals may be required for progress into the last 16.
Tunisia suffered a major blow when a knee injury to Al-Duhail’s Youssef Msakni has almost certainly ruled him out of the World Cup.
However, with likes of Wahbi Khazri of Rennes, Taha Khenissi of Esperance, Mohamed Ben Amor of Al-Ahli, and a raft of players from across Europe and Tunisia, Maaloul will still feel confident his team can make a real impression in Russia, 40 years after their finest World Cup hour.
Whether they can surpass the Class of ‘78 remains to be seen.