- Ben Youssef & Tunisia missed out on Brazil 2014 after play-off loss - Four years later, defender stands poised to heal that painful memory - Tells FIFA.com what's changed for him & the national team in last two years
In just a few days, Tunisia could potentially etch their name onto the list of qualified teams for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. If they succeed, the Carthage Eagles will return to the global showpiece after a 12-year absence, and one player in particular is desperate to ensure they do. For Syam Ben Youssef, qualifying for Russia 2018 would be a dream come true – and the perfect way to erase a lingering regret.
The defender was a relatively new face in the national side when Tunisia last closed in on their World Cup goal in October 2013. One final hurdle remained as they faced Cameroon in a play-off, but the door to Brazil 2014 promptly slammed shut. As Ben Youssef explained to FIFA.com in 2015, "It really, really hurts."
Two years on and FIFA.com found the centre-back in far brighter spirits, with Tunisia close to booking their ticket to Russia. Their task now is to take four points from their two remaining fixtures, an away trip to Guinea and a home meeting with Libya.
While still the same player, Ben Youssef was almost a new man as he compared Tunisia's current situation with their previous attempt – two years after his last take on that ill-fated campaign.
A nightmare to forget, a dream to pursue
Ben Youssef in 2015: "It takes a lot of time to digest missing out on a World Cup. On top of that, it was in Brazil, which I think would have been exceptional. Not everyone gets to experience that, and I really would have loved to go. I'm 25, so it was the right time, but it makes me even more motivated to reach the next one."
Ben Youssef in 2017: "Our destiny is in our own hands, but it's always difficult in Africa. I don't think Guinea will give up, even though they're already eliminated. They want to win games, have their say and give a good account of themselves. We need to want the victory more because we're playing to qualify for the World Cup. That happens maybe once in your life, maybe never. It would be fantastic to represent my country and family at a World Cup."
Carthage Eagles ready to soar
Ben Youssef in 2015: "This is a talented generation. We began playing together quite young and there's a lot of quality, with a mix of young players, older players, locally based players and others who play abroad. Everything will happen in time. It takes more than just a year or two to build a generation in the national team. You need stability, but we've had a lot of managerial changes, which makes it hard to stay on the same track."
Ben Youssef in 2017: "We have a lot of games and two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments behind us. We've kept pretty much the same spine we had in 2014 and we've progressed together. We've been growing as a team, even off the pitch. We spend time together, share jokes and there's a real joie de vivre (joy of life). You can feel that on the pitch, with everyone attacking and defending together. We really try to work on that so that any new player coming in fits right into the team and adopts this way of thinking."
A flaw to overcome
Ben Youssef in 2015: "My partner in central defence, Alaeddine Yahia, tells me to focus above all on being a defender – to forget about doing anything fancy and just clear the ball. It's not that I don't defend, but I'm already thinking about where I'm going to pass before I win the ball back. Sometimes that can play tricks on you, so he tells me to do my job as a defender first and only then do a little extra if it's possible."
Ben Youssef in 2017: "Right now, we have a team that moves the ball around well, so I leave the fancy stuff to other players! I just try to put out any fires by defending, doing my job and leaving the others to do what they do best. I know they're capable of making the difference, so there's no need for a defender to overdo it. But the coach, Nabil Maaloul, likes it when we build from the back, so that suits me perfectly."
Syam Ben Youssef's life in 2017…
• 28 years old, 40 caps (1 goal)
• On joining Turkish club Kasimpasa: "The Turkish league has taken on a new dimension this year. The stadiums and pitches are fantastic and everyone knows about their supporters. As for the training pitches, I've never seen anything like it. I think our training centre has to be one of the best in Europe. I love it here, I feel great, and I really hope we'll have a good season."
• On life in Istanbul: "I knew the city a little already, but I'm discovering it all over again – and it's superb. It's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited. And the food! I'm taking it a little easier now, but when I first got here I wanted to eat everything."
• On his dreams and goals: "I've played in the Europa League and I'd like to play in that again, or the Champions League – and why not win an Africa Cup of Nations title as well? And the World Cup too, of course, for Tunisians everywhere, as well as my parents and my brothers. It would be fantastic to represent my country and family at a World Cup."