'I support. I sacrifice for the shirt. I’m crazy' – a day with Tunisia's football fanatics

The National joins supporters of Etoile du Sahel as they travel to the capital to watch their side face Esperance de Tunis in the African Champions League

Fans put on a display as Tunisian sides clash

Fans put on a display as Tunisian sides clash
Powered by automated translation

The sun is setting to the east over the mountains that border Tunisia and Algeria. To the right, the Mediterranean. Straight ahead on the country’s main motorway and 120km to the north, the capital Tunis.

On this day, the road is busy with the redshirted followers of Etoile du Sahel. Around 25,000 of them have been making their journey all day for the game that kicks off at 8pm.

They are going to watch their team play in a huge African Champions League match against Esperance de Tunis, the country’s biggest club. The pair are among the successful clubs in African football. Both need to win.

At the side of the motorway, youngsters beg for a lift north.

“These kids have no money and they don’t have a match ticket, they will do anything to get to the game and support their team,” explains Ismail. “They will make any sacrifice for their team.” Ismail, 20, an apprentice at a robotics and electronics company in Lucerne, has flown from his home in Switzerland to watch the game.

He was born in Switzerland, part of a large Tunisian diaspora which is biggest in France and substantial in Italy, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He also lived in Sousse, Tunisia for 10 years before returning to Europe because his father felt it would be better for his future.

He misses the sunrises over the Mediterranean, his friends and the atmosphere from being at Etoile de Sahel games. He feels fortunate to be travelling back for the big match with his friends.

Other fans pack into vans, communal taxis, 15 in the back of a white van with two seats in the front. Those nearest the door are hanging out of the back along the motorway. They sing, they wave their flags with the stars – ‘Etoile’ translates to 'Stars of the Sahel' – which are readily available from sellers lining the road.

“You stole my mind,” they sing in Arabic laced with French words. “You are my love. I spend my life going everywhere with you.”

“They are using football to escape the reality of everyday life – which can be difficult for a young person in Tunisia,” says Ismail. “Work is hard to find. Many move abroad. So, they sit in cafes thinking about their football team.”

Etoile are based in Sousse, Tunisia’s third biggest city of 670,000. Despite being a huge club in an upgraded stadium, they must play their Champions League games in the capital and home of their rivals. The 60,000-seater Stade Hammadi Agrebi is the only venue in the country sanctioned to host Champions League games.

Etoile Sportive du Sahel, to give them their full name, celebrate their centenary next year, 100 years after they were founded at a public meeting at a French-Tunisian school. They chose the name Etoile because they didn’t want to only represent the city of Sousse, but the wider region of Sahel.

They wear the red and white of the Tunisia flag, something the French colonial authorities wanted to stop.

They’ve won more Confederation of African Football (Caf) trophies than any Tunisian club and were champions of Tunisia last season. They are ranked among Africa’s most successful clubs alongside Al Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt, Wydad and Raja of Morocco and TP Mazembe of Congo – and Esperance of Tunis.

Esperance, champions of Africa four times, most recently in 2018, are Tunisia’s biggest and most successful club, but were grouped with Etoile in the 2023/24 Champions League group alongside Petro de Luanda of Angola and Al Hilal of Sudan.

Given the size of Africa, teams from the same country can be drawn in the same group, which also limits the vast distances involved.

The fans travelling north are thus going to see a ‘home’ game in a municipal stadium in the city of their main rivals, yet the numbers of those allowed to attend football matches have been restricted since the 2010 Arab Spring uprising, which began in Tunisia.

Away fans are also banned, though they’re allowed in for continental games, and 1,500 are present in the 25,000 crowd for this one. That means barely one in every 10 of Esperance’s 17,000 season-ticket holders can get a ticket.

And how every one of those away fans makes their presence felt, singing and dancing on the lower tier behind the goal in support of El Tunis. They sing in Arabic, four groups of ultras wearing mostly black.

Ultras L’Emkachkines were the first ultra group in Tunisia, founded in 2002. Fellow groups Zapatista Esperanza, Fedayn and Torsida have followed for the country’s biggest, most successful club who draw fans from all over Tunisia.

The influence of the ultras is shown by flags in Italian stating ‘Unico Amore’. They’re in the stadium hours before, while Ismail and his friends head into the capital Tunis but not on the main motorway.

“I was scared, you’re going to the home of our enemy,” he warns. Etoile fans indicate that they’re going to the match by blinking their rear red lights so they can follow each other. Security is also high, with far more police per head than a typical Tunisian Premier League game.

The National goes through no fewer than five ticket and security checks before entering the stadium, where tea is served and fresh almonds and mint offered to drop into the tea. Radio journalists – the medium is important in the country of 12 million – talk with enthusiasm about the game ahead. Younger people are more into social media.

The stadium on the outskirts of Tunis was built in 2001 for the Mediterranean Games. It witnessed Tunisia beating Morocco to win the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations under Frenchman Roger Lemerre, who had guided France to European Championship glory four years earlier.

All the time, the atmosphere builds. Football is a big deal in Tunisia. The team were Africa’s sole representatives at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. The Maghrebi teams would take up eight of the fifteen places granted to African teams between 1978 and 1998.

Strong domestic leagues helped, while Tunisia, a sliver of land between much larger countries, had the exceptional Tarak Dhiab, African Footballer of the Year in 1977.

Tunisia’s preparation for the 1978 World Cup finals wasn’t ideal as they were banned from playing games in any African competition after the whole team walked off the field following a disputed penalty being awarded in a game against Nigeria.

In Argentina, Tunisia were drawn in a group against world champions West Germany, Poland, who finished third in the previous World Cup, and Mexico.

Tunisia beat Mexico 3-1 and Argentina’s La Nacion proclaimed: “One of the most unexpected results in the history of the World Cup.” It was the first time an African or Arabic team had won a match in the global finals.

Neutrals supported Tunisia, the underdogs. Their charismatic coach Abdelmajid Chetali helped, but they lost 1-0 to Poland in the next game, needing to beat the Germans in their final match.

“They have technique and strength,” warned one German report according to the excellent Feet of the Chameleon, the story of African Football. “And they close up together in defence like an accordion, and quickly spring from there into attack.”

Tunisia appealed for what they considered a blatant penalty against Germany. It was not awarded. They drew 0-0 against the World Cup holders and went out.

Known as the "Eagles of Carthage", Tunisia have reached six World Cup finals, while also winning the Africa Cup of Nations (2004), the Fifa Arab Cup (1963) and African Nations Championship (2011).

Back to the modern day, at the Stade Hammadi Agrebi, ES Tunis start the stronger of the two sides. Both teams have recently changed coaches in the hope of an upturn in fortunes. It costs around $7 to sit behind the goal, though everyone stands. Football is a working-class sport in Tunisia and ticket prices for this game are between $11-16 for the seats along the side of the pitch.

Etoile are banned from buying players, meaning the bulk of their squad are Tunisian. Esperance boast two Brazilians and players from Ivory Coast, Algeria and DR Congo.

The Brazilian Yan Sasse hits the post then follows up the rebound to put Esperance ahead. Smoke from the flares let off by their pocket of fans envelopes the stadium. Zakaria El Ayeb makes it 2-0 after 41 minutes.

“His birthday is the same as the club’s birthday,” one journalist explains, as if it’s a sign. The away fans sing, while a man with five mobile phones mingles. He’s in charge of organisation and must be on top of things amid the febrile atmosphere.

Flares are lit and then thrown forward before being extinguished by firemen wearing silver helmets like a Roman sentinel. There are songs and flags against people from the Sahel.

The game seemed to be over by half time, but the Etoile end comes to life in adversity. Despite the poor performance of their team, their tifo displays are superb.

They decorate their huge ends, unfurling huge banners. One says: “I will give you the rest of my life without thinking about any profit”. Another “I support, I sacrifice for the shirt. I’m crazy.”

A vast flag shows two French soldiers being led away, a throwback to 1956 when Tunisia won independence from 80 years of French rule. There are also Palestine flags on display.

But then the mood turns in the Etoile end. Youths run back and forward and fight among each other, swarming in patterns like birds in migration. Police break them up and install order.

This is not the Tunisia that the country wants tourists to see in a country where people are friendly and welcoming.

In the stand, Ismail waits until the end. He flew back to see this game in December and was leaving before the end when Etoile scored. “The last time was perfect,” he said after the game. “But not this time.”

Esperance finish the group in second and advance to the knockout stage, Etoile finish bottom with only one win from six games. Their season of continental football is over.

In 2010, high unemployment, food inflation, corruption and poor living conditions led to anti-government protests and uprisings which spread across much of the Arab world. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country after 23 years in power and the Tunisian government was overthrown.

Tunisian teams have remained among the most powerful in Africa in the decade since, though the national team dropped to 65th in Fifa World ranking – its lowest ever.

In January, a shock defeat to Namibia meant it was the first time since 2013 that Tunisia did not reach the knockout stage of Afcon.

The morning after the game, The National travelled a few hours south via a communal taxi and the city of Hammamet. Though there’s a modern motorway and train, public transport is limited and small vans wait to be filled up with passengers before setting off.

A bustling market close to one of the bus stations in Tunis had football shirts on sale, but it was the international teams with their star players which dominated rather than Tunisian sides. In one stall selling mobile phone covers, there’s a ‘Man Utd’ football. In the airport, it’s the Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona plus NBA side the LA Lakers whose jerseys are in demand.

England’s Premier League is hugely popular in Tunisia, with interest in La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A also high thanks to geographic proximity and because Italian state broadcaster Rai 1 was available in Tunisia even before the days of satellites and streaming.

It could become an issue for Tunisian football if younger fans, who also love the Premier League’s fantasy football games, prefer to stay at home watching the European leagues rather than attend domestic games in person, where security issues remain.

Arabic is mostly spoken, French too since Tunisia is a former French colony. More of the younger generations speak English.

Tunisians are proud that Hannibal Mejbri, who they view as a future star, chose to play for the country of his heritage rather than France, the country of his birth. Mejbri was at Manchester United and is now at Sevilla.

On Sunday, the two teams met again in the Tunisian league play-off. This time, Etoile were allowed to play in Sousse but despite home advantage, ES Tunis won once again, by a single goal scored 10 minutes from time. No wonder the fans from the capital are singing right now.

Updated: March 13, 2024, 12:42 PM