World Cup 2018: Tunisia looking to end victory drought

The Eagles of Carthage will be playing for more than just pride when they meet Panama in Saransk on Thursday. Their hopes of the last 16 may be gone, but they still have the chance to end a long barren spell.

You have to go all the way back to Argentina and 1978 to find the last time Tunisia won a World Cup match. On that occasion they beat Mexico 3-1 on their debut on international football's biggest stage. It was a historic result as it made Tunisia the first ever African team to record a World Cup victory.

Three finals appearances (the last coming in 2006) and 13 World Cup matches have passed since then, and the wait for a win goes on. Tunisia have played two, lost two so far at this tournament: A narrow 2-1 defeat against England, when Harry Kane popped up with a stoppage time winner, was followed by a 5-2 thrashing by Belgium.

At least on paper, the easiest is still to come. Thursday's encounter with Panama – ranked 24 places below Tunisia in the FIFA list – represents the best chance for Eagles of Carthage to put 40 years of World Cup misery behind them. However, sometimes it can be hard for players to get out of a losing mentality.

"I tried to boost their spirits but this was difficult," said coach Nabil Maaloul ahead of the game, which pits the two already-eliminated teams in Group G against each other. "Some of my players have not overcome their last defeat. All are playing for the first time in the World Cup and they want to have a positive result for this to be a great memory."

Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul has seen his side struggle so far in Russia

Second time lucky

Maaloul is enjoying his second spell as national team coach after a brief spell in charge in 2013. His latest bite at the cherry came when the veteran Pole Henryk Kasperczak was sacked last year after a poor Africa Cup of Nations campaign. The 55-year-old immediately set about improving performances, guiding Tunisia through African World Cup qualifying unbeaten.

He has instilled an attacking mindset into his young team, which was evident in Tunisia's last outing against Belgium. Several times in the match they unsettled the Belgian defense, with 15 shots on goal telling its own story against a vastly superior opponent. To be sure, Belgium deserved to win, but Maaloul's side put up an impressive fight.

"The coach is doing a good job, it's important to underline that," forward and captain Wahbi Khazri told DW. "He's a respectful man who knows football well. We can see the progress we've made in the last two matches. We have to admit our opponents are playing at a high level. Now we're looking to end the World Cup on a good note against Panama."

Khazri (pictured, top) has shouldered much of his team's hopes at this tournament, stepping up as the country's talisman in place of the injured Youssef Msakni. Maaloul previously likened losing Msakni to Argentina being without Lionel Messi.

For Khazri, it has been something of a tumultuous journey to get to this World Cup. Having excelled in France's Ligue 1 for Bordeaux, his career floundered following to a move to then-English Premier League side Sunderland in 2016.

However, while the Black Cats have suffered two straight relegations, Khazri's fortunes have gone in the opposite direction. Shipped out on loan back to France with Rennes, the 27-year-old arrived in Russia on the back of a season in which he scored 9 goals in 24 games.

Tunisia's fans have enjoyed the tournament despite results

And the forward, a set-piece specialist, showed that never-say-die attitude against Belgium. He was rewarded for his perseverance with a late consolation goal to go with an earlier assist from a freekick.

"I'm very happy with my performance," Khazri said after the game. "I moved a lot and I tried to help my team more than [I did] against England. When I'm feeling well physically, I'm capable of doing good things."

A team united

Nearly 75 percent of this Tunisia squad is formed of players based abroad, while some, including key midfielder Ellyes Skhiri, were born in France. It has led to questions about unity in the ranks. But both Khazri and centre-back Syam Ben Youssef rejected suggestions of a divided team when asked about this by DW.

"There's no problem with that at all," Ben Youssef said. "The problem was the match [against Belgium]. Unity has no relation to that."

It is a view shared by the fans. Montasser Zaied, a 34-year-old IT specialist, says the team benefits from having a number of players in other leagues, although he would like to see stronger foundations put in place back home, as well.

"Maybe we have to improve our infrastructure in Tunisia," he said. "We have to improve our national league also. But I think we have the same unity, the same spirit. Football's just a game."

Zaied's friend, consultant Mehdi Dziri, agrees. He grew up in France but says Tunisia is in his heart. The 28-year-old feels proud of the country of his parents' birth.

"We have a good generation [of players] in midfield," he said. "I think in one or two generations it will be better. We have players from the Tunisian league – it's not usual. Usually we only have players who play abroad. The Tunisian league will improve and the level of Tunisian players will get better."

"We had many supporters here, we had fun and we showed that Tunisia is a great country," Dziri added. "Now the good way to finish this tournament is to win against Panama."

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Champions du Monde

Rain could not dampen the spirits of the French team as they lifted the World Cup trophy at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. They beat Croatia 4-2 in the final to win their second ever World Cup.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Best ever finish

Despite missing out on the final, Belgium were all smiles as they beat England 2-0 in the third place playoff. With the victory, the Red Devils confirmed their best ever finish at a World Cup.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

A new teammate?

Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic (from left to right) celebrate with a photographer they had just bowled over in their excitement after Mandzukic scored Croatia's winning goal in their semifinal against England. It looks like the photographer was okay.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Into the final

France coach Didier Deschamps embraces Samuel Umtiti after their semifinal win over Belgium. Umtiti scored the only goal France would need to reach their first final since 2006. The win means that Deschamps will get the opportunity to become just the third man to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager, having been part of the 1998 team that won the title at home in Paris.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

New England hero

Harry Maguire scores his first international goal in England's 2-0 quarterfinal win over Sweden. The Leicester City defender, who traveled to France to watch England as a fan, has been one of the feel-good stories of this World Cup

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Belgium beat Brazil

Romelu Lukaku celebrates after Belgium beat Brazil to make their first ever World Cup semifinals. The Manchester United striker delivered another brilliant performance to help his team to victory on another historic night in Kazan.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Penalty hero

England finally won a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament, thanks to Eric Dier (pictured above) and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. After a dramatic Round of 16 game, Gareth Southgate's side made history.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Comeback complete

Nacer Chadli finishes off a swift move that started with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to score Belgium's third goal against Japan deep into time added on in their last 16 clash in Rostov Arena. This completed Belgium's comeback after they had gone down 2-0 in the 52nd minute.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Heroic shot stopper

Ivan Rakitic scored for Croatia to win the penalty shootout over Denmark, which put the Balkan nation through to the quarterfinals, but it was Danijel Subasic who was the real hero, stopping three shots in the shootout.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Hometown hero

Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev stopped two in the penalty shootout to send Spain packing. Here he stops Iago Aspas' effort, his second save, which sent the Cinderella host nation through to the quarterfinals.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

A helping hand

Edinson Cavani provided the two goals Uruguay would need to get past Portugal in the round of 16, but in the 74th minute he was forced to hobble off injured. Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo rushed over to help him off. A sporting gesture? Perhaps. But with Uruguay in the lead, maybe CR7 was just making sure there was no time-wasting on Cavani's part.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Major blow

Some moments are memorable for the wrong reasons. Colombian fans would love to forget this one. James Rodriguez limps off the pitch injured after half an hour of play in his country's last group stage match against Senegal. Even without their biggest star, Colombia won the match to finish top of Group H.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

South Korea eliminate Germany

Son Heung-Min wheels away in delight after doubling South Korea's lead in the dying moments of their Group F clash with Germany in Kazan. The win sent Germany crashing out in the opening round of a World Cup for the first time since 1938. A devastating loss for the reigning world champions.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Messi finally arrives in Russia

It all happened in a matter of seconds, but it was the moment football fans around the world had been waiting for. Ever Banega supplied the pin-point pass and, two sublime touches later, Lionel Messi was picking out the top corner with his weaker foot. After being late to the party in the group stages, Argentina's star man has a chance to make amends with France to come in the Round of 16.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Guerrero's crowning moment

After having a doping ban temporarily lifted in order to feature at the World Cup in Russia, Paolo Guerrero assisted Peru's first and scored their second in a 2-0 win over Australia. It was a true captain's performance, helping Peru secure their first World Cup win since beating Iran back in 1978.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Ronaldo's emotional rollercoaster

Cristiano Ronaldo was at the heart of a series of VAR incidents as Portugal drew 1-1 with Iran, finishing as runners-up in Group B. CR7 had a penalty saved by Ali Beiranvand and also picked up a yellow following a review as Iran's players called for him to be sent off for an incident with Morteza Pouraliganji. A tough end to a what had been a glittering group stage campaign.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Striking from the spot

Harry Kane scored a first-half hat trick for England in their 6-1 win over Panama in Group G. The Tottenham Hotspur striker already has five goals in the tournament, putting him in the running for the golden boot. Panama also made history scoring their first ever goal at a World Cup courtesy of Felipe Baloy.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Life in the old dog yet

Toni Kroos curls home Germany's 95th-minute winner against Sweden. Despite a positive start in Sochi, the same carelessness which had been so costly against Mexico was present again, and Kroos was a major culprit. But the Real Madrid star demonstrated all his experience and class with this free-kick to spare the reigning champions' blushes.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

A game of two halves with a political twist

Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates his dramatic stoppage time winner over Serbia by making an Albainian eagle gesture with his hands. He and fellow goalscorer Granit Xhaka, who also made the gesture, are of Albanian descent, their families having fleed to Switzerland during the Balkan war. The pair were booed throughout by the match by Serbia fans.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Argentina falter in the other group of death

If Germany have it bad after their defeat to Mexico, Argentina's second match against Croatia put the giants in dire straits. Slumping to a 3-0 defeat, triggered by a goalkeeping howler, Lionel Messi and co. no longer have their group stage fate in their own hands. Messi, 30, has already "retired" briefly from international football once before; if he goes to Qatar, it surely won't be at his peak.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

A surprise guest

Disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter made a shock appearance as Portugal beat Morocco 1-0 on Wednesday. The 82-year-old said he was invited to the tournament by Russian President Vladimir Putin. His successor Gianni Infantino was also at the fixture, according to FIFA's list of dignitaries. "I am still president, just suspended," Blatter told Russian channel RT.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

The Egyptian king is back

Less than a month after the Champions League final, when he sustained a shoulder injury that some thought could threaten his World Cup, Mohamed Salah returned to the pitch. Liverpool's Egyptian king first drew a foul that led to a penalty and then converted from the spot. But it was a mere consolation as Egypt lost 3-1 to hosts Russia and lost their chance of progressing to the knockout stage.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Kane and able

Harry Kane scored England's first ever second-half stoppage time World Cup goal to give the Three Lions all three points against Tunisia. Kane had given England a deserved early lead before Tunisia equalized with a controversial penalty. But captain Kane popped up again in injury time with a back-post header to win it for Gareth Southgate's team.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Beyond Neuer's reach

Germany lost their first match at a World Cup for the first time since 1982, when West Germany lost 2-1 to Algeria. This time they fell 1-0 to Mexico. Joachim Löw's men were beaten by a better organized and more energetic Mexican side. Even Germany's No. 1, Manuel Neuer, couldn't prevent the defeat.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

A draw that felt like a victory

Undeterred by the driving rain, Icelandic fans in Reykjakvik followed their team's first-ever World Cup match on large video screens set up in the heart of the capital. After the match, they celebrated their team's 1-1 draw with 2014 finalists Argentina as if it had been a victory.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Messi misses from the spot

Superstar Lionel Messi and the rest of the Argentinian national team had their problems with Iceland in their opening match in Group D. The 2014 finalists could only manage a 1-1 draw, and Messi, the five-time world footballer of the year, often looked very ordinary indeed. In the 64th minute, he even failed to score from the penalty spot.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Political message

Shortly before the match between Iran and Morocco kicked off, the Iranian government banned outdoor public gatherings to watch the game. In St. Petersburg, though, Iranian women, who would not be allowed into a stadium in their homeland, took the opportunity to make their view known.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Five star hosts

One of the lowest-profile opening games to grace any World Cup wasn't much of a contest. Russia were far too good for a poor Saudi Arabia side and ran out 5-0 winners. Denis Cheryshev (center) came off the bench to score the second and added another sensational strike in injury time.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

"El Gasico"

The opening fixture of this year's tournament between two of the world's biggest gas exporters, Saudi Arabia and Russia, was ironically dubbed "El Gasico" by some fans. Here, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud chats to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, while Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the action.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

Among the stars

Putin (second from left) also made an appearance before the opening with a plethora of footballing greats. Lothar Matthäus (far left), Pele and Maradona (center), Jay Jay Okocha (far right) and Kanu (back right) were also in attendance.

World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

The show starter

More than 500 local dancers, gymnasts and performers joined pop star Robbie Williams and Russian soprano Aida Garifullina on stage at the tournament's opening ceremony. Shorter than most such events, the 15-minute-long display also featured speeches from Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.