The goal was Wahbi Khazri’s last touch of the ball. Fed the ball from close to the halfway line by Aissa Laidouni, he sprinted as though his life depended on it, spun and sped past the onrushing French shirts, dinked over the flailing legs of French defender Ibrahim Konate, and dribbled the ball past goalkeeper Steven Mandanda.
He lost his balance after his final goal-ward touch, and before he could scramble back to his feet, a pile of sweat-soaked white shirts covered him. He emerged out of the heap exhausted, but still had the energy to stagger towards a section of jubilant fans, who were lost for words and celebrations. He drew a heart with the hands and blew kisses at them. A thousand kisses were blown back at him. Soon after, he was substituted to loud cheers
There suddenly sprung hope of a pre-quarter shore they had never visited. But their sweetest tale would tell their saddest story. Winning the match would not suffice for them to progress; they required the Australia-Denmark match to end in a draw. And heartbreakingly, Australia scored two minutes after Khazri’s goal, through Matthew Leckie. Tunisia’s defeat at the hands of Australia would return to haunt them.
Tunisian fans could be seen furiously twiddling their smartphones, checking the score of the Australia-Denmark game. The Danes came close to scoring several times, but no good news awaited Tunisia’s supporters. The scoreline would break their hearts.
Eight minutes into stoppage time, Antoine Greizmann shanked home a volley to equalise only for the VAR to overrule. But in the end it did not matter, as Australia clung onto their lead and qualified. But concealing their grief, wiping their tears, Tunisian supporters gave a thunderous applause to their team. Some of the players slumped to the ground and wept. Some others spread into the embrace of the support staff.
The knockout stage continues to elude them, even in their seventh appearance, even though they produced their best- ever result in a World Cup, scalping world champions France of all teams, though it was primarily France’s bench for most of the game. But world champions nevertheless, with their cupboard of talent overflowing with riches.
But until Didier Deschamps summoned some of his regulars, after he made nine changes to the side he fielded against Denmark, France were utterly bland and blasé, bereft of verve, tune and desire. As if they were a rag-pack band picked randomly and bunched to play a tribute cover-act to the Beatles, as though they were parodying themselves. They failed miserably, from the makeshift front-three of Kingsley Coman, Kolo Muani and Jordan Veretout to the midfield trio of Eduardo Camavinga, Matteo Guendouzi and Aurelien Tchouameni. They have to thank the centre-back pairing of Rafael Varane and Ibrahima Konate for not letting the scoreline bloat.
France jarred in the opening minutes. Exploiting this lack of coherence, Tunisia, plotting an upset, attacked with rigour and intensity, hogged possession and tested the reserves of French talent. France hardly sniffed the ball, let alone trouble the Tunisian defence or resolve. That it took them 35 minutes to register their first effort and twice as many minutes to test Tunisian goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen encapsulates the ineptness of the French.
It could have been worse for France. In the eighth minute, Tunisia almost went in front with Nadir Ghandri flicking the ball with the outside of the boot, off a free-kick, but for him being horribly off-side. But Tunisia, encouraged by the relentless screech and hoot of their fans, with a newfound sharpness to their game, were troubling France’s defence, winning the midfield battle and blocking France from entering their territory. The phlegmatic Didier Deschamps would have been left doubting the rationale of his indulgent overhaul.
The lack of familiarity — even if they had spent hours honing their tactics together —was terrifyingly evident. None as conspicuous as in the notes of anarchy the midfield trio of Camavinga, Guendouzi and Tchouameni churned out. So comic, even farcical, that Guendouzi’s intended through ball to Camavinga ended up hitting the latter’s back.
Often they were easily dispossessed, the passes were intercepted and heavy touches as well as impetuous tackles were all too familiar sights. Deschamps, usually inexpressive, cut a frustrated figure. Oftentimes, it required the experience and awareness of Varane and Konate to bail them out of trouble.
But despite their best efforts, Tunisia came close to plucking a lead, not least when Khazri whipped up a wobbling volley, but straight towards ’keeper Mandanda. Tunisia, for all their verve, lacked the finesse to convert at least a couple of their chances.
But why did France make all the changes in the first place? Was it madness or was there a method? The argument cuts both ways. Deschamps wants to keep his regulars fresh for the pre-quarters, whereas he wants his second rung to accumulate some game time. If someone gets injured or if the knockout games go deep into extra time, France might need grooved-in fresh legs. There is no harm in testing the bench in inconsequential games as these.
The other side of the debate is that it could arrest the momentum, dim the swagger and prick their aura. A defeat, no matter the inconsequence of the game, could pile on negativity.
Or it could be to appease the theorists of the probability law. Lose now rather than later. In the end, its only intention seemed to tease the Tunisian fans, give them hope of a shore they had never been to. Instead, it took them to the shore of heartbreak.