An energetic and determined Tunisia claimed a famous victory over a France team made up mostly of back-up players on Wednesday, but their 1-0 win over the reigning champions was not enough for the North Africans to progress to the World Cup knockout stages.
They departed the tournament with “honour and pride”, coach Jalel Kadri said. But despite their defeat of one of the tournament favourites, their fate was ultimately not in their hands.
Tunisia needed not only to beat the already-qualified France but to hope for Denmark to avoid defeat against Australia in the other Group D game to advance. They roared onto the pitch to challenge a disjointed French side featuring nine changes from the side that beat the Danes.
But their win against the 2018 World Cup winners failed to see them through to the next stage after Australia defeated Denmark 1-0 and clinched second place in the group. Tunisia thus keep their unwanted record of not progressing from the group stage in six World Cup appearances.
French-born Wahbi Khazri lifted Tunisia to their third win in 18 matches at the finals, dribbling into the box in the 58th minute and slipping the ball past back-up goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, who at 37 is the oldest Frenchman to play in a World Cup match. Tunisia’s win also ended France’s six-match winning streak at the World Cup.
Tunisia threatened early on, with Nader Ghandri flicking the ball into the net off a free kick but the play was ruled offside.
Khazri said Tunisia were ending their World Cup journey with a “bittersweet feeling” – delighted to have beaten France but heartbroken by the outcome of the other group game.
Coach Kadri echoed his player’s comments.
“Unfortunately we exit the tournament but we also left the game with a lot of honour and pride,” he said. “We have been able to play with a lot of efficiency.”
Hostility from the stands was palpable from the start, with a portion of Tunisian supporters at Education City whistling at the French national anthem as it was played before kickoff. The same had happened at an emotionally-charged 2008 friendly in Paris between France and its former colony.
In a tactic designed to rest his stars for the Round of 16, French manager Didier Deschamps gave players who generally see very little of the pitch a taste of the action.
But France’s bench showed little cohesion and their back line was consistently pushed back and split wide open by a Tunisian side desperate to score.
The Tunisian captain’s goal mobilised the French into action, with Deschamps bringing in stars like Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to jump start an attack that had so far been tepid.
Mbappe and Griezmann energised the French, who were aided by Tunisia sitting back in the hope of preserving their win. On the Tunisian bench, substitutes and staff had their eyes glued on the other decisive group stage game in the dying minutes of their own match.
Hoping to spare themselves the embarrassment of a loss, France pressed on but a stoppage-time goal by Griezmann was disallowed over an offside.