Tunisian national team urged to display patriotic spirit at World Cup

Football is something of a second religion in Tunisia, where people of all stripes take pride in their national team.
Sunday 10/06/2018
In great spirits. Tunisian fans take a selfie with defender Yassine Meriah before the departure of the national football team from the Carthage International Airport, on June 7.                                                                                                                                                                           (Reuters)
In great spirits. Tunisian fans take a selfie with defender Yassine Meriah before the departure of the national football team from the Carthage International Airport, on June 7.

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called on the Eagles of Carthage — the national football team — to summon patriotic spirit and put on an “honourable” display at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, where they will carry the hopes of 11 million Tunisians looking for a respite from a deep crisis.

Tunisia has appeared in the World Cup four times previously — 1978, 1998, 2002 and 2006 — but never advanced out of the group stage. The Eagles’ best moment in the football tournament came during its first appearance in 1978, when it beat Mexico, 3-1.

Football is something of a second religion in Tunisia, where people of all stripes take pride in their national team. From the president at his Carthage palace to artisans in narrow alleys of the old medina of Tunis, Tunisians are hoping for a successful showing at this year’s World Cup.

“Me, too, I need that,” Caid Essebsi told the team and its manager Nabil Maaloul. “The eyes of the Tunisian people are on you.”

“All of you are young patriots. You must have the love of Tunisia on your heart from the moment you take the first step on Russia’s soil,” he said.

Caid Essebsi noted that the team had collectively improved.

“The national team showed ability to recover quickly to come from behind when they were losing,” he said. “That shows that the team is built upon solid foundations. We are not yet in the top rank among world football elites but we are strong enough to be feared by other teams in the World Cup.”

Tunisia’s appearance in the World Cup comes as the country’s tourism industry rebounds three years after a terror attack in Sousse killed 38 people, mostly Britons. Since then, Tunisia’s Western allies have helped provide training to improve security standards.

British aviation security experts helped overhaul airport security in Tunis, Djerba, Monastir and Enfidha, while the Ministry of Defence trained National Guard members in maritime interdiction and port security.

Tunisia’s tourism numbers have risen and are expected to reach a record 8 million this year, according to government figures.

“We aim to receive 8 million tourists this year with strong booking rates from European customers and other new customers,” Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik

announced.

That number would exceed the 7.1 million tourists who travelled to Tunisia in 2014 and bring in an estimated 25% more revenue than last year.

Tourism accounts for 8% of Tunisia’s GDP, and a return of European holidaymakers would provide a strong boost to the struggling economy. It would also help boost dwindling foreign currency reserves, which is the main cause of high inflation and a weakening currency.

Tunisia’s football team will take on a new look when it appears in the World Cup’s opening ceremony.

“Tunisia’s players will be wearing the traditional dress. The chechia, jebba and farmla,” said Wissem Ben Amor, a designer and head of the Tunisian Chamber of High Fashion.” They will be the ambassadors of Tunisia’s traditional style.”

This was welcome news to cash-strapped craftsmen and artisans in the old medina of Tunis, who hope their business will see a boost due to the football players’ high profile. Tunisia’s traditional handicraft industry employs about 400,000 people, accounting for 4% of the country’s GDP.

The tourism crisis in recent years and competition from abroad have pressured the sector to adapt to the challenges of globalisation, Ben Amor said.

Unlike in 1978, Tunisia has no star players on whom to rely during this World Cup. Nonetheless, it will prove to be a serious contender that could gain momentum following its opening encounter June 18 with England. The Eagles of Carthage meet Belgium in Group G play June 23.

Tunisia wraps up its Group G schedule with a June 28 game against Panama, which is competing in its first World Cup.

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