Tunis, Tunisia – Businesses closed so early on Tuesday in Tunisia that it might as well have been a public holiday.
The reason was none other than the opening match of the Eagles of Carthage, as the Tunisian soccer team is known, in the Qatar World Cup campaign against Denmark.
An hour before kick-off at 14:00 (13:00 GMT), Tunisians were stunned, like the rest of the world, to see Saudi Arabia celebrate one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history by beating 2-1 Lionel Messi’s Argentina.
The stunning victory raised hopes among Tunisians that their team, ranked 30th in the world, could also deliver a surprise blow to their opponents, who are ranked 10th in the FIFA rankings.
“It’s the biggest surprise of the World Cup so far,” Amine, a student who, like many others in the capital, went to watch Tunisia play, said of Saudi Arabia’s victory.
Half an hour before the start, the streets were busy but the vehicle traffic was moving fast. Jamaiya Taxi, the yellow minibuses that carry mainly working-class people, raced by as the clock ticked down. On the radio, soccer experts spoke urgently about formation and strategy.
Cafes and bars quickly filled with customers. Most places were standing room only. The walls of many venues resounded with the sound of soccer chants against the insistent drumming of traditional drums.
With their economy in a tailspin amid a cost-of-living crisis, shortages of basic goods and rising unemployment, Tunisians don’t have much to be happy about these days, but the sight of the team stepping foot in Education City Stadium was enough. to send waves of excitement roaring through the busy business district of La Fayette.
As the match began, there was a nervous silence, punctuated by gasps of surprise every time Tunisia threatened to score a goal.
Halftime found both teams scoreless, and inside a Chabbi “salon de thé” (working-class teahouse), the air was thick with cigarette and shisha smoke. and the sound system plays popular songs that have become synonymous with national team matches.
Despite the food shortages that have hit the country this year, the owners did their best to keep things running: sugar was available for customers to have with their coffee, while the milk for their cappuccinos came from a tin.
Deep into the second half, and it was still nothing. Denmark scored, but the heartbreak was short-lived as the goal was disallowed for offside. Then eyes were glued back to the screen and deep concentration as fans prayed for Tunisia to make it past the group stage for the first time in their sixth World Cup appearance.
An emotional roller coaster, the high-octane match saw Tunisia play very well, but Denmark were also dangerous.
In the 67th minute, a visibly tired Anis Slimane was replaced by Naim Sliti. The fans cheered.
“He’s an attacking player, that’s why everyone is happy!” said Mohammed, who is in town for a business start-up training course.
“Tunisia is playing very well and against a really strong team,” he added.
There was more cheering in the 80th minute when attacking midfielder Hannibal Mejbri also arrived.
“He is a game changer,” said the optimistic Mohammed.
Still, nothing changed and the final whistle found both teams even. But for the Tunisian fans and Tunisian players celebrating in Doha, it felt like a victory.
Now their attention turned to the third group game on November 29 against reigning champions and former colonial power France. Or, as Muhammad laughed, “the old oppressor.”