Postcard from Tunisia: match night in Bab Souika

'What else do we have in Tunisia that brings us joy?'

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It's match day in Bab Souika, and hundreds of red and yellow streamers stretch like clothes lines from the art nouveau facades of this working-class neighbourhood, just north of the Medina in Tunis.

The streamers are temporary, but the red and yellow stripes of Esperance Sportive de Tunis, the local football club, are endemic to this area: the cafe awnings, food carts, and even the parking stanchions sport Esperance’s "blood and gold".

The residents do, too, and by 5pm the neighbourhood plaza is bursting with the team's striped jerseys.

There's a nervous energy in the hot, stale air. It's the second leg of the CAF Champions League semi-final against Egypt's Al Ahly, and Esperance need to score at least two goals to have a chance of advancing to the finals. Just a week earlier, the team suffered a 1-0 loss to Al Ahly in front of 60,000 fans at home in Tunisia. Now they have to power their way back in a nearly silent stadium in Cairo.

“I know they’ll do it, they have to do it,” says Elias, 25, who has staked out a seat in front of a flatscreen TV at one of the cafes that line Bab Souika’s central plaza. “What else do we have in Tunisia that brings us joy?”

He and his friends spend afternoons at the stadium watching the players train, and can rattle off every year the team won the CAF title – four times in all since the team was founded in 1919, with four corresponding stars on their crest. “You have to know your history,” he says.

On the main square, Cafe Al Abbassia has set up a projector and is showing the Italy-Austria match in the Euros as a pre-game show. Early birds watch distractedly while checking the team line-ups for the coming match on their phones.

In the years before TV or even sports radio, Al Abbassia, which has been a Bab Souika institution since 1902, would post Esperance’s scores and stats for their concerned customers.

I can't sleep the night before matches. I even switched my ring tone to be one of the fight songs

Around the corner at Weld el Commissar, a tiny, tiled fast-food favourite for residents, 46-year-old Lamia's hands shake as she tears stale bread into a bowl of leblebi – Bab Souika's famous chickpea stew.

“I can’t sleep the night before matches,” she says. “I even switched my ring tone to be one of the fight songs.”

Her whole family comes out to watch the game, each at their own preferred cafe. On one side of the main artery, young men rearrange the cafes' outdoor chairs from tight circles into untidy rows that inch ever closer to the screen as the action heats up.

They chant and sing fighting songs – to the chagrin of the older men who would just like to hear the commentator, if you don’t mind – and greet newcomers with five kisses and a smack to the back of the head.

Teenage girls and families crowd around tables under the art deco facade of a cafe across the street. A girl, aged 4, in pigtails and drowning in a dress-length jersey, settles into her uncle's lap, ice cream in hand, as the game begins.

The Egyptian stadium is nearly empty, and the lack of a crowd casts an eerie quiet over the match. Esperance come out strong, but in the 32nd minute, Algerian defender Ilyes Chetti brings down an Al Ahly forward in the penalty area.

Nervous hands fumble with tiny cups of muddy coffee as the match officials check the VAR replay to determine if a penalty is in order. It is, and Al Ahly send their Tunisia international Ali Maaloul to the spot, while the referee sends Chetti packing with a red card.

Maaloul converts the spot kick – placing it straight down the middle –  and Esperance are a man down for the rest of the match.

"Wallah, oh my God," Foued, 59, utters, shaking his head. "The coach really put out the wrong line up."

By half-time the cafe’s waiter has stripped to his undershirt and is pacing nervously. Lamia and her sisters can hardly watch the first-half highlights while they wait for the match to resume.

“It’s the blue jerseys they are wearing,” one of the women says. “They jinx them every time!”

Esperance are running themselves ragged, with a man down and morale fading, when Al Ahly's Mohamed Sherif pulls away in the 56th minute to score a second goal that deflates all hope of an Esperance win.

The groans of the crowd mingle with the Isha call to prayer crackling from the local mosque’s loudspeaker.

With an impending Covid curfew, the disappointed fans begin to settle up with the waiter, his waist pouch sagging from the night’s proceeds. They stub out cigarettes and stack up chairs and hardly notice when Hussein El Shahat scores Al Ahly’s third goal of the night.