Tunis, Tunisia – Businesses closed so early in Tunis on Tuesday that it might as well have been a public holiday.

The reason was none other than the opening game of the Eagles of Carthage, as the Tunisian football team is called, in Qatar’s World Cup campaign against Denmark.

An hour before kick-off at 2pm (1pm GMT), Tunisians – like the rest of the world – were stunned to see Saudi Arabia to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament by beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2-1.

The shock win gave the Tunisians hope that their team, ranked 30th in the world, could also deliver a surprising blow to their opponents, who occupy 10th place in the FIFA rankings.

“It’s the biggest surprise of the World Cup so far,” said Amine, a student who, like many others in the capital, headed to see Tunisia play, of Saudi Arabia’s victory.

Half an hour before kick-off it was busy on the street, but the car traffic was moving fast. Taxi Jamaiya, the yellow minivans that mainly transport working-class people, raced as the clock ticked. On the radio, football experts spoke urgently about formation and strategy.

An Arab tea house in Tunis packed with customers watching the World Cup match between Tunisia and Denmark [Elizia Volkmann/Al Jazeera]
An Arab tea house in Tunis packed with customers watching the World Cup match between Tunisia and Denmark [Elizia Volkmann/Al Jazeera]

Cafes and bars quickly filled with customers. Most pitches were standing room only. The walls of many buildings echoed to the sound of football chants against the penetrating drumming of traditional tambours.

With them economy at a rapid pace amid a cost-of-living crisis, shortages of basic goods and rising unemployment, Tunisians don’t have much to cheer about these days – but the sight of the team stepping into Education City Stadium was enough to send waves of excitement the busy advertising district of La Fayette.

When the game started, there was a nervous silence, punctuated by cries of elated surprise every time Tunisia threatened to score.

At the halfway mark, both teams found goalless, and in a Chabbi “salon de thé” (working-class teahouse), the air was thick with cigarette and shisha smoke. and the sound system sings popular songs that have become synonymous with the national team’s games.

Despite the food shortages that exist devastated the country this year the owners did their best to keep things going: sugar was available for customers to go with coffee, while the milk for their cappuccinos came from a can.

Deep into the second half, and it was still nil. Denmark scored, but the scare was short-lived as the goal was disallowed for an offside violation. Then it was back to eyes glued to the screen and deep concentration as fans prayed for Tunisia to break past the group stage for the first time in their sixth appearance at a World Cup.

An emotional rollercoaster, the high-octane match saw Tunisia play very well, but Denmark was also dangerous.

In the 67th minute, a visibly tired Anis Slimane was replaced by Naim Sliti. Fans cheered.

“He’s an attacking player, so that’s why everyone is happy!” said Mohammed, who is in town for business start-up training.

“Tunisia is playing very well and against a very strong team,” he added.

There was more cheering in the 80th minute when attacking midfielder Hannibal Mejbri also came on.

“He’s a game changer,” said the optimistic Mohammed.

Still, nothing changed and the final whistle tied both teams. But for the Tunisian fans and the Tunisian players celebrating in Doha, it felt like a victory.

Now their focus was on the third group match on November 29 against reigning champions and former colonial France. Or, as Muhammad laughed, “the old oppressor.”

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