(This feature was first published in July 2017)
The Egyptian players did not know what hit them. And that was just the wall of noise that greeted them as they emerged from their dressing room into the cauldron of Stade Olympique El Menzah in Tunis.
In December 1977, Tunisia and Egypt were both 90 minutes away from reaching the World Cup in Argentina the following year. The home team, having previously disposed of Morocco, Algeria and Guinea in the knock-out rounds, trailed the Pharaohs by a point in the Final Round qualifying group, and needed the win to progress. Any other result and Egypt would be returning to football’s greatest stage for the first time since 1934.
What followed was one of the most memorable matches in African football history. Tunisia, driven on by a raucous crowd seemingly barely contemplating anything other than a sweeping triumph, simply demolished Egypt 4-1.
Goals by Mohamed Akid, Temime Lahzami, Abderraouf Ben Aziza and Khemais Labidi left Tunisians in a dream that a late goal by Egypt’s Mokhtar was hardly going to wake them from.
Abdelmajid Chetali’s wonderfully gifted team were going to Argentina.
To say the draw was not kind to Tunisia would be an understatement; they were grouped with world champions West Germany, a formidable Polish team that had finished third four years earlier, and 1977 Concacaf Championship winners Mexico.
If Tunisia’s comprehensive defeat of Egypt had not raised eyebrows then their performances at the 1978 African Cup of Nations in March, just three months before the World Cup, should have. Chetali’s men marched to the semi-final where they narrowly lost 1-0 to hosts and eventual champions Ghana, a formidable team themselves at the time.
Chetali, had over three years built a cohesive, battle-hardened team that was peaking just in time for their biggest test. Their opponents in Argentina must not have paid attention.
When, on June 2, 1978, Tunisia made their World Cup bow at the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito in Rosario against Mexico, it would prove arguably the most memorable match in their history, surpassing the win over Egypt.
Not that there was any indication of that at half-time, as they trailed to Arturo Vasquez Ayala’s penalty. Whatever Chetali said at the break seemed to do the trick.
Tunisia emerged from the tunnel a team transformed. With nothing to lose, they seized their moment in history.
With superb Tarak Dhiab pulling the strings, the relentless football from the qualifiers was back and goals by Ali Kaabi (55), Nejib Ghommidh (79) and Mokhtar Dhouieb (87) left their opponents, and the watching world, stunned.
Tunisia, the Eagles of Carthage, had created history by becoming the first African or Arab team to ever win a World Cup match. For Mexico, the loss was a national disaster.
Next up was Poland an despite their shock win, few fancied Tunisia to upset Poland.
In the first half the goalkeepers Mokhtar Niali and Jan Tomaszewski were in inspired form, and only a poor defensive mistake allowed Grzegorz Lato, World Cup top scorer four years earlier, to score just before the break.
Tunisia, once again inspired by Dhiab, threw all they had at Poland after the break, persisting with their precise game plan of quick breaks from midfield.
As the clock ticked down came Tunisia’s sliding doors moment. Yet another mesmerizing counterattacking move left captain Temime Lahzami with sight of goal. His brilliantly executed volley struck the crossbar before bouncing into Tomaszewski relieved arms. Lahzami, arms thrown to the sky, could be seen mouthing “Allahu Akbar”, God is great.
There was still time for Mohamed Ben Rehaim and Kaabi to waste headed chances, but fate was not on Tunisia’s side that day.
The good news was that Tunisia could still progress to the second round with a win in their final group match. The bad news that it was the World Champions West Germany – who had thrashed a demoralized Mexico 6-0 – who they would have to beat.
In time, Helmut Schon’s team would be seen as a shadow of the one that overcame Johan Cruyff and Holland to win the World Cup four years earlier. Still, they represented a mountain to climb for Chetali’s men in Cordoba.
As ever, Tunisia were hardy overawed and gave the Germans an almighty scare, but a creditable goalless draw was not enough to see them through to the last eight.
Chetali and his men returned home as national idols, their achievements never to be forgotten. It took Tunisia another 20 years to get back to the World Cup, and they then repeated the trick twice.
But for sheer ground-breaking, never-say-die performances, few African or Arab nations can compare to the red and white heroes of 1978.
This feature first ran in July 2017