May 24 (Reuters) - Factbox on the Tunisia national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA ranking: 14 (until June 7)
Tunisia are appearing in the World Cup for the fifth time, a run which started in Argentina in 1978, but the North Africans have not made it to a tournament since 2006. After beating Mexico 3-1 in their opening game in 1978, the Tunisians have not won another World Cup finals match and have never made it beyond the first round. In 2002, they drew 1-1 with Belgium, whom they will face again in Group G. In 1998, they lost 2-0 to England, whom they will play in their opening game in Russia.
Nabil Maaloul: The 55-year-old Maaloul is a former Tunisia midfielder who made 74 appearances for the Eagles of Carthage and scored 11 goals. He also won a string of Tunisian league titles with Esperance de Tunis before turning to management. He was an assistant under Frenchman Roger Lemerre when Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations in 2004 and is one of only a few African coaches of teams from the continent. Maaloul was briefly Tunisia manager during the failed attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup before he coached Kuwait. He returned to the Tunisia team last year after veteran coach Henryk Kasperczak departed. Maaloul has been credited with adding more attacking flair to Tunisia.
Wahbi Khazri: Khazri will be under pressure to step into the role vacated by injured playmaker Youssef Msakni. Khazri knows about the England players he will face on June 18 having had a spell at Sunderland before being loaned to Rennes in France last year. Khazri has struggled to maintain his form in France but scored the only goal in Tunisia’s 1-0 friendly win over fellow World Cup qualifiers Costa Rica in March, taking his goal tally for his country to 12 in 37 games. He has been moved recently from winger to centre forward.
Anice Badri: Another attacking midfielder, Badri scored a crucial goal in September when he sealed the North Africans’ late comeback against their main rivals for qualification, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Badri volleyed home a 79th-minute equaliser in the 2-2 draw in Kinshasa. Badri was a schoolboy with Lille in his hometown in France before playing more than 50 times for Royal Excel Mouscron in Belgium and signing for Esperance Tunis for whom he has scored 10 goals in 41 appearances.
Syam Ben Youssef: One of a clutch of central defenders vying for a starting spot in Russia, Ben Youssef has featured in most of Tunisia’s recent matches and was a key factor in the team’s unbeaten qualifying campaign. Ben Youssef plays for Kasimpasa in Turkey having appeared for Caen in France, FC Astra Giurgiu in Romania and Esperance Tunis, as well as a brief spell with Leyton Orient in England.
The North Africans have risen up FIFA’s rankings to their highest ever 14th place, boosted by friendly wins over fellow qualifiers Iran and Costa Rica.
How they qualified:
Tunisia went unbeaten in their World Cup qualifying campaign but had to endure a nervy finish when they drew 0-0 with strugglers Libya to edge out the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Eagles of Carthage are underdogs against England and Belgium but should be too strong for Panama who are making their World Cup tournament debut.
Should they defy the odds and make it to the second round, Tunisia would play the first or second-placed team from Group H which features Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan.
Reporting by William Schomberg, editing by Ed Osmond