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Wahbi Khazri’s World Cup swan song could inspire Tunisia to new World Cup heights
On the shores of the French tourist island of Corsica, a young Wahbi Khazri ran, built sand castles and dreamed big.
The Montpellier star’s leadership, excellence and ambition were perhaps inspired by the island’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte.
But Khazri’s triumphs and conquests would come on the football field.
From the age of four, he showed his athletic skills, a gifted child playing with his older brothers.
His talent, his dribbling and his formidable strikes were, in his youth, sharpened on the grass of Ajaccio, where he spent eight formative years.
He quickly developed into a skilful and fast midfielder with great stamina and an ability to create and find space in attack.
Khazri’s professional journey began with French side Bastia in 2009, and in 2014 he moved to Bordeaux for two seasons before a switch to English Premier League club Sunderland.
A loan spell at Rennes was followed by four very successful years at Saint-Etienne, where he scored an unforgettable goal against Metz.
Picking up the ball in the Saint-Etienne penalty area, he spotted the opposing goalkeeper – Algerian Alexandre Oukidja – off his line and then scored a sensational goal from inside his own half.
Throughout his career, the love for his parents’ country never left him. After representing the France Under-21 team in 2012, he opted to play for Tunisia a year later.
His debut came on January 7, 2013 against Ethiopia, and he was called up by national team coach Sami Trabelsi for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.
He has since become the team’s leader and talisman.
Qatar 2022 will be his second World Cup as captain of the Carthage Eagles after Russia 2018.
He heads to the tournament having scored 24 goals in 71 international appearances, and in addition to his appearance at the World Cup four years ago, he has represented Tunisia at the Africa Cup of Nations on five occasions, in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021.
Tunisia may not have had a memorable start in the previous decade but improved with Khazri first in the team. This culminated in the 2018 World Cup where they landed in a tough group with Belgium and England but managed a second tournament victory. In their 2-1 win over Panama, Khazri scored a winning goal in the 66th minute.
Tunisia enter the World Cup with a generation of players – many playing at home – hoping to reach the knockout stages for the first time ever.
It is a dream that the Tunisian Napoleon describes as “within reach, where there is determination, comes great achievement”.
On paper, the Tunisian team appear to be the weakest of their group – many observers also consider them the weakest of the qualified Arab teams – but Khazri and his teammates hope to channel the spirit of the golden generation of 1978 and provoke a major upset against defending champions France, Denmark or Australia.
The tournament also promises to be a swansong for several of the team’s older players, including Khazri, who has explicitly indicated that the 2022 World Cup could see his final appearance in a Tunisian jersey.
The Carthage Eagles kick off their World Cup campaign against Denmark on November 22, before meeting Australia four days later and concluding their group matches against the world champions on November 30.
And if they manage to negotiate those waters and reach the promised land of the knockout stages, it will be the crowning achievement of a remarkable international career for Khazri.