After spending his entire career in Tunisian football, Mondher Kebaier faces a challenge like never before as he aims to bring Africa Cup of Nations glory to the national side – a team whose considerable promise has so often failed to bear fruit.
Three years on from their run to the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) semi-finals, the Eagles of Carthage – as Tunisia are nicknamed – are hoping to realise their considerable potential by capturing the trophy they once seized in 2004.
Last time, Tunisia powered through to the semi-finals before crashing at the hands of Senegal – who played much more impressive football before winning 1-0 in extra time. Much of the blame for their failure to make the final was directed at French manager Alain Giresse and his frequent tinkering with tactics. Giresse departed after only eight months in the job.
Kebaier replaced him August 2019 – as the Tunisian Football Federation were determined that a local manager should take the job. After coaching the biggest clubs in Tunisian football – CA Bizertin, ES Sahel, African Club and Espérance de Tunis – Kebaier was the natural candidate to take up the post.
“The federation were looking for someone who understands how people think in Tunisian football, and Kebaier ticked all the boxes, especially seeing as he’d managed local clubs and indeed Tunisia’s Olympics team,” Tunisian sports journalist Naima Sassi told FRANCE 24.
“Nevertheless, for all that experience, Kebaier has only won one title as a manager, with CA Bizertin in 2013,” Sassi noted.
As Eagles of Carthage manager, Kebaier oscillates between the 4-3-3 formation he invariably deployed in club football and a 4-2-3-1 formation that emphasises the attack even more.
The linchpins of this stylish tactical approach are FC Koln midfielder Ellyes Skhiri, Youssef Msakni (a winger for Qatar’s Al Arabi) and Wahbi Khazri (an attacking midfielder and striker at France’s Saint-Étienne).
After all, the track record that saw them run to the semi-finals amounts to a respectable 16 wins, 4 draws and 4 defeats in 24 games. The Eagles of Carthage sailed through their CAN-22 qualifying group unbeaten.
Despite an embarrassing 1-0 defeat against Equatorial Guinea in November, Kebaier’s men will be playing in March’s third round of World Cup qualifiers. Few pundits expect them to miss out on going to Qatar in 2022 after they featured in Russia 2018 (where they were nevertheless eliminated at the group stage).
Yet Kebaier’s popularity in Tunisia doesn’t match this solid track record. “It must be said that the fans have much higher expectations of local managers,” Sassi said. “Some think the squad is too much for him to handle given the quality of players he’s dealing with.”
A common criticism of Kebaier is that he’s failed to take Tunisia up a gear by vanquishing one of the giants of African football: They’ve mustered mere draws against Cameroon and Nigeria under his tenure – while losing against Ivory Coast and Algeria. Kebaier will have to raise standards if Tunisia want to go all the way – as they face a difficult test in their first match against Mali, an underrated side whose ample strengths make them an outside contender to take the trophy.
“Even if the Tunisian team’s objective is to reach the semi-finals, Tunisia fans want them to win the Africa Cup of Nations,” Sassi pointed out.
Kebaier will no doubt bear in mind that his predecessor Alain Giresse left the job after Tunisia exited CAN-2019 in the last 4.