Driving south from Tunis to Ben Guerdane in a bus with the Esperance under 16a’s to play a game that could decide whether they win their league. One hour out of town the back tire blows, the bus shakes from side to side, but the six-foot driver manages to ease it to a steady halt. Half an hour later a replacement bus pulls up and we are off again – evidence of the effectiveness of the Esperance machine. Accompanying the under 16s is a head coach, his assistant, a fitness trainer, physio, goalkeeper coach and logistics manager. It feels like the sort of team you might expect with a senior premier league team. But this is how seriously Esperance takes its football.
Ben Guerdane is the closest town to the Libyan border. I ask our fixer what the town is known for, and he says, smuggling – subsidised Tunisian milk goes to Libya and subsidised Libyan fuel comes to Tunisia. The town is another of the many low-slung dusty white towns between the desert and the sea. In the past visiting teams have often struggled to leave without incident with stories of locals pelting busses with rocks, but the national guard is on hand to escort the bus.
We are filming Khalil Melliti the captain of the team. He is a central midfielder who glides across the turf and seldom wastes a pass.
For such a small town the stadium impressively large with stark concrete stands ramping into the blue sky and an astro-turf pitch which looks out of place. Not long after the ref gets the game under way it is clear this is going to be a difficult game to win. The officiating is spectacularly one-sided and the pockets of home fans are hurling constant abuse at the player’s and coachng staff’s mothers and sisters.
Half time and it is 0-0. The coach gives the players the sort of speech you’d expect from Fidel Castro after a failed military campaign. He is not interested in blaming the ref or the linesman who advised a sending off of an Esperance player for allowing himself to be slapped by his Ben Guerdane opposite number.
Ten minutes into the 2nd half, Khalil lines up a free kick from way out on the right and curls the ball into the top corner. While the Esperance players celebrate the goal at the sideline the ref encourages Ben Guerdane to restart. There are no Esperance players in their half. They are all still high-fiving on the sideline. So the goal is open. Ben Guerdane tap it forward and shoot for the open goal. At that moment the Esperance players realize what is happening and start sprinting back, some towards the goal others towards the ref. The ball hits the post and bounces perilously close to the line before a defender to whacks it into touch.
A couple of minutes later two Ben Guerdane players collapse on cue in the box and the ref awards a penalty, of course. One, one. The game descends into farce with ingenious time wasting and gamesmanship from the Ben Guerdane players.
Full time. It is a draw and the Ben Guerdane players celebrate like they have won the league. For Esperance, to quote the elderly physio, it is, catastrophique.