Tunis, Tunisia — Shops closed so early on Tuesday in Tunis that it could just as easily have been a public holiday.
reason was none other than the opening game of the Eagles of Carthage, as the Tunisian soccer team is known, in the World Cup campaign between Qatar and Denmark.
An hour before the kick-off at 14:00 (13:00 GMT), the Tunisians — like the rest of the world — were stunned as they watched Saudi Arabia celebrate one of the biggest surprises in tournament history by beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2-1.
The shock victory gave the Tunisians hope that their team, which is in 30th place in the world rankings, could also deal a surprising blow to their opponents, who are in 10th place in the FIFA rankings.
“It’s the biggest surprise of the World Cup so far,” said Amine, a student who, like many others in the capital, set off to watch Tunisia play, about Saudi Arabia’s victory.
was a lot going on the roads half an hour before kickoff, but vehicle traffic was fast. Taxi Jamaiya, the yellow minibuses that mainly carry working class people, stopped when the clock was ticking. On the radio, soccer experts spoke urgently about formation and strategy.
Cafes and bars quickly filled with visitors. Most seats were standing room only. The sound of soccer, which sang against the persistent drumming of traditional tambourines, echoed on the walls of many rooms.
With their economy in a tailspin amid a crisis in the cost of living, lack of basic goods and rising unemployment, Tunisians don’t have much to cheer for these days—but the sight of the team entering Education City Stadium was enough to spread waves of excitement in bustling La Fayette business district.
There was a nervous silence at the start of the game, which was interrupted every time Tunisia threatened to score a goal, interrupted by pleasant surprise.
At half time, both teams were goalless, and in a Chabbi “salon de thé” (working class tea house), the air was full of cigarettes and shisha smoke. And the sound system plays popular songs that have become synonymous with the national team’s games.
Despite the food shortages that hit the country this year, the owners did their best to keep things running: sugar was available for customers to take away coffee, while the milk for their cappuccinos came from a can.
Deep in the second half, and it was still zero. Denmark scored, but the fear was short-lived as the goal was not allowed as an offside injury. Then the eyes were glued back to the screen and fans were focused as fans prayed for Tunisia to get past the group stage for the first time in its sixth appearance at a World Cup.
an emotional rollercoaster ride. In the high-octane game, Tunisia played very well — but Denmark was also dangerous.
In the 67th minute, a visibly tired Anis Slimane was replaced by Naim Sliti. The fans cheered on.
“He is an attacking player, so everyone is happy! ” said Mohammed, who is in town for start-up training.
“Tunisia is playing really well and against a really strong team,” he added.
There was more cheering in the 80th minute when offensive midfielder Hannibal Mejbri also arrived.
“He is a game changer,” said optimist Mohammed.
Still, nothing changed and both teams were on the same level at the final whistle. But for the Tunisian fans and the Tunisian players celebrating in Doha, it felt like a win.
Their focus was now on the third group game on November 29 against the reigning champion and former colonial power France. Or, as Muhammad laughed, “the old oppressor.”