Nabil Maaloul had already assured himself of a special place in the annals of Esperance for his achievements as a player. And after overseeing a historic treble of Tunisian league, Tunisian cup and CAF Champions League titles as a coach, he will likely figure prominently in the first chapter of any historical account of the club’s successful exploits.
A year ago, even the most fervent and optimistic fans of the Blood and Gold could not have imagined their heroes reaching such dizzy heights, but Maaloul had made confident predictions from the outset. “It’s what I said at my initial press conference, before my first match as Esperance coach,” Maaloul pointed out to FIFA.com a few days before the start of the FIFA Club World Cup.
“My number one objective was to win the Champions League. The year before, the team had won the league and then gone on to lose in the final of the Champions League. I told myself that, on behalf of the club, the supporters and the chairman, we had to try to go one better, and win the tournament.”
Something that the Tunisian coach cannot have foreseen, however, was the way in which external events conspired to assist his team. “The Tunisian revolution helped us enormously, because it led to the championship being suspended for two months,” he explained in reference to the political upheaval witnessed in the country at the beginning of the year.
“I was convinced that we would be in with a shout, because we’d worked so hard on our physical preparation, which enabled us to grow in strength and remain competitive right up to December,” he continued.
From tears to triumph
While the tension in the streets would eventually dissipate, the same could not be said for the high-octane atmosphere at Stade Olympique in July, when Esperance welcomed Egyptian giants and regular African champions Al Ahly to Tunis for an important group-stage match.
“That match was a real turning point, and it confirmed to me that we were on course to lift the trophy,” recalled the former assistant to Roger Lemerre, with whom he worked closely during Tunisia’s successful 2004 CAF Africa Cup of Nations campaign.
“We’d just won the [domestic] cup, and it was difficult to regain our focus after all the euphoria that followed our win. On top of that, I was without several players, who were injured, suspended or ineligible. For a club like Esperance, it’s always tough when you’re missing one or two first-team regulars, let alone four or five. But my players confirmed to me that they could live up to our ambitions,” he said.
If we reach the semi-final and perform honourably against Barcelona, that would be a wonderful thing.
Interestingly, the players at Maaloul’s disposal are practically the same as those that were comprehensively beaten 6-1 on aggregate by TP Mazembe in last year’s African final. Between the tears of 2010 and the scenes of joy this November, the major changes have occurred mainly on the bench.
“The squad is very similar to what we had last year, but some players who have not been on top form over the past few seasons have had a quite exceptional year. That proves that they’ve made progress and been able to make the most of their ability,” confirmed Maaloul, before explaining: “I was a player, so I know how they feel, what I should say to them, how to comfort them, and how to find just the right words to stop them from getting carried away.”
The former Club Africain midfielder did not need to use a huge number of words to motivate his troops for the final, which offered a ticket to Japan 2011 to the winner. “My pre-match team talk was the shortest of my career,” he remarked, adding, “It only lasted seven or eight minutes, because I’d already prepared my players individually – I knew they were ready, and that they’d do the club proud.”
Tales to tell
Once again, Maaloul predicted what came to pass: 0-0 in the away leg with Moroccan outfit Wydad Casablanca, followed by a 1-0 victory in the return match. But this time the north African tactician used the past to help prepare for the future.
“I said to the lads that they were on the verge of going down in the history of the club, and of Tunisian football,” explained the 49-year-old. "That many great Esperance teams of the past had failed to win this ground-breaking treble, and that they would be the first generation of players to take part in the Club World Cup. It’s very important."
“They won’t realise it right now, but when they’re my age, when they’ve ended their careers, their hearts will fill with pride at the thought of what they accomplished,” he added.
Players such as Oussama Darragi, Youssek Msakni, Harrison Afful and Mejdi Traoui, among others, should therefore have some exciting tales to recount in years to come, including their FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 adventure, which is set to begin with a quarter-final against Qatari side Al-Sadd on Sunday 11 December.
In the event of success in that fixture, the might of European champions Barcelona awaits in the semi-final. On this occasion, Maaloul is less willing to foretell the future.
“If we reach the semi-final and perform honourably against Barcelona, that would be a wonderful thing for the team, for me and for the history of the club,” he stated, before refocusing on his charges’ more immediate challenge: “Let’s try to keep our feet firmly on the ground. We first have to try to beat Al-Sadd, and after that we’ll see what happens.”
“But I do hope to leave my mark on this club nonetheless,” concluded the man who has led Esperance to their most successful campaign ever, one in which he has perhaps left the best till last.