Esperance face Al Ain in Club World Cup second round on 15 December | Khenissi missed Russia 2018 due to injury | UAE 2018 is an opportunity to make up for World Cup absence
Barely 15 minutes into his side’s Tunisian league fixture against Kairouan on 10 May 2018, Esperance’s Taha Yassine Khenissi was bearing down on goal and looked odds-on to score. Instead, the striker pulled up with what turned out to be a serious muscle tear, which ruled him out of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
The injury and subsequent absence from the global showpiece did not dampen Khenissi’s spirit. It instead motivated him to work hard and come back even stronger. This he duly did by leading his team to glory in this year’s CAF Champions League, which secured Esperance a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup. Khenissi is hoping that the chance to feature at another global competition can help compensate for missing Russia 2018.
Sitting down with the forward at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain city, FIFA.com began by asking him how he had coped with that difficult period earlier this year. "Missing the World Cup in Russia was a severe blow for me, but I never lost hope. I trained well to return strong, and now I'm back to my best. I also helped my team reach the Club World Cup, which is as important as the World Cup for me.”
Khenissi acknowledges that it was tough to learn that he would not be going to Russia, saying: "It’s true that I was sad when I found out. It was devastating news, but I turned that page and started working to get back as quickly as possible. I regained my confidence and made a strong return."
Khenissi is hoping to make up for lost time by enjoying every moment at UAE 2018 and helping his team go as far as possible in the tournament. Esperance start their campaign with a quarter-final meeting with UAE’s Al Ain, who edged out Team Wellington in the opening match in a penalty shoot-out.
Asked about their opponents, Khenissi said: "Any side we play here at the Club World Cup deserves respect. Al Ain are a very good team and will be playing on home soil in front of their fans. Small details will play a decisive role in the game. We respect all our opponents and have to prepare well for the game to perform at our best.”
Avoiding past mistakes
Now 26, Khenissi was one of the youngest players at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 when he was included in Esperance’s 23-man squad. And though he did not enjoy any playing time in Japan and watched his side lose their first opening against Al Sadd and then the play-off for fifth place to Monterrey, he took a lot from the experience and soon became an important part of the team.
Recalling that disappointment of seven years ago, the striker said: "In 2011 it was our first appearance and we failed to win the first game. I think we learned a lot from that tournament, and this time we’re not here to make up the numbers. We aim to go as far as possible in the tournament.”
Asked if his side had a specific objective for UAE 2018, Khenissi said: "We want to go as far as we can but will take each game as it comes. Our first goal is to win against Al Ain to reach the last four. Then we can focus on River Plate, but our main goal is to have a better tournament than 2011 and reach the semi-finals. If that happens, we can take it from there. Speculation about a possible meeting with Real Madrid in the final would be premature.”
Khenissi signed off with a message to the Esperance fans. "We’re here to put on a good performance and to strongly represent Tunisian and African football. We want to make our fans happy because they’re always behind their team. Esperance will be the best ambassador for African football.”