Classic Qualifiers

Tunisia triumphant as north Africa roared

Tunisia's forward Silva Dos Santos jubilates after scoring against Morocco

Tunisia's first ever CAF African Cup of Nations triumph in 2004 was a monumental event in the country's sporting history, while also pointing to an exciting renaissance in north African football. The fact that Morocco were the team they defeated in the final only strengthened that impression as the region's contenders recovered from the disappointments of 2002.

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The tournament likewise represented a comeback for Roger Lemerre, with the Carthage Eagles coach back in the limelight 20 months after being sacked by France following their disastrous showing at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Despite the lack of stars in his team, his extremely close-knit squad could count on fantastic support from their fans at crucial moments and went on to claim a title few of their compatriots dared believe was possible.

On the pitch, no player better symbolised the team than combative midfielder Riadh Bouazizi, captain for the final in place of the suspended Khaled Badra. He and his colleagues had earned the right to contest the showpiece match by downing 2002 runners-up and 2002 FIFA World Cup quarter-finalists Senegal in the quarter-finals, before eliminating two-time competition winners Nigeria in the last four.

Crazy atmopshere
Ultimately, the destination of the trophy had much to do with the fatigue Morocco were suffering after their incredible run, which had begun with a 1-0 triumph over Nigeria in their initial group-stage outing. Pitted against their north African rivals in the final for the first time, the Atlas Lions were undone by poor starts to both halves, which they paid for by conceding a pair of goals. Add a mistake by goalkeeper Khalid Fouhami into the equation and Morocco never really looked like pulling themselves back into contention.

The game kicked off at a vigorous pace and, with a rousing buzz of encouragement emanating from the stands, Tunisia committed themselves to creating early pressure. Jose Clayton signalled their intentions with a ferocious shot that Fouhami could only turn wide, but Morocco failed to heed the warning and struggled to clear the resultant corner. With Lemerre's troops scenting their chance, the ball was eventually played back into the area for diminutive forward Francileudo Santos to head in his fourth goal of the tournament with just five minutes gone.

Despite welcoming back Talal El Karkouri from injury, Morocco's defence was being buffeted by the dangerous Tunisian forwards and Santos soon came close to doubling the advantage after running on to a Riadh Bouazizi pass. Next it fell to Adel Chedli to spread panic as he turned a Ziad Jaziri cross narrowly wide.

Hopes dashed
It took the Atlas Lions 20 minutes to edge their way into the encounter and, with half an hour on the clock, they finally presented a threat when Youssouf Hadji shot off target. Five minutes later, an Oualid Regragui effort lacked sufficient power to pose trouble, but as time went he and his colleagues began profiting from a drop in intensity from the Tunisians. An equaliser duly followed too, courtesy of a superb move orchestrated by Hadji. After a one-two with Abdelkrim Kissi, the attacking midfielder cut back a wonderful cross to Youssef Mokhtari, who buried a diving header to take his competition tally to four strikes with seven minutes left before the interval.

Just as it seemed they were ready to shine, however, Morocco committed the same mistake at the beginning of the second half that had cost them so dearly in the first. Sitting back instead of taking the initiative, they conceded seven minutes after the restart as Fouhami spilled Clayton's low drive into the path of Jaziri and was helpless to keep out the follow-up attempt. Buoyed by that goal, Tunisia opted to see out the rest of the match playing on the break, putting their faith in aerially strong central-defensive duo Karim Haggui and Radhi Jaidi, not to mention impressive 38-year-old goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel.

The response from Morocco trainer Badou Zaki was to send on two attacking players in Mohamed El Yaagoubi and Jaouad Zairi, with more defensively minded pairing Youssef Safri and Akram Roumani asked to make way. The Atlas Lions' increased pressure failed to tell, though, as the Tunisian rearguard refused to wilt, and when the final whistle blew it was greeted by scenes of sheer euphoria among the fans at the Stade du 7 novembre in Rades.

Those waves of joy soon rippled outwards as the entire country basked in a first ever triumph, while Morocco left the pitch with heavy hearts but their heads held high.

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