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Radhi Jaidi: Tunisia Needs Football Revolution to Compete at Higher Level

After nearly two decades away from his native Tunisia, Radhi Jaidi’s return to Esperance in 2021 was supposed to mark the triumphant homecoming of a legend. Jaidi emerged as a commanding center-back for the Tunis heavyweights before making history as the first Tunisian to play in the English Premier League for Bolton Wanderers, and later Birmingham City and Southampton. Coming back to Esperance as head coach, Jaidi — who had impressed as Southampton U23s boss after hanging up his boots — arrived promising to use his English football experience to improve the fortunes of his first club. It started well, with a Tunisian Super Cup triumph over CS Sfaxien but Jaidi ultimately lasted less than a year. His sacking, after a shock Tunisian Cup exit to CS M’saken, was particularly brutal — coming just two weeks before his side were crowned Ligue 1 champions.

It was tough to take and Jaidi, who is now on the coaching staff at Belgian top-flight club Cercle Brugge, feels that his time at Esperance proved a valuable learning experience. “Even though Tunisia is my country and I know the mentality and culture, this was a difficult experience,” Jaidi told Arab News. “The main lesson I took from Esperance is that you can never fully trust the process. I agreed on a plan, on the objectives with the owner and the president — it was about building something long-term. But then he changed his mind. “I’m sad that we couldn’t finish the project we started but we had many positive steps and successes, such as objectives around improving players and staff. I also think the football we showed in Esperance was beautiful football to watch.

“As a former player of Esperance, it was still a dream for me to be a head coach and that experience will stay in my mind always.” Jaidi has been earmarked by many as a future Tunisia national team coach but the former defender, who made a record 105 appearances for the Eagles of Carthage between 1996 and 2009, feels that the football infrastructure in his country needs significant improvement before he would consider the top job.

“The national team is an objective of every Tunisian coach and I would be proud to take the Tunisian team,” Jaidi said. “If I coach the national team, I want to take them to the next round of the World Cup as a minimum and win the African Nations Cup as a minimum. That is not a dream, that is a fact for me and I know this is what the Tunisia fans would expect. “But I don’t think Tunisia is ready yet. There are some aspects we need to improve in Tunisian football and also as a coach I want to operate on a daily basis with a club right now, but I think this door will be open in the future.”

Jaidi was part of the last Tunisia side to win the African Nations Cup in 2004 and believes strongly that the Tunisian Football Federation failed both initially to build on that success and subsequently in not encouraging that generation to be involved in the country’s football governance. “It’s not a surprise to me that we have not won (AFCON) since then,” Jaidi said. “Every time Tunisia hits a high level, we push the reset button that take us back to zero. In modern football this is not the way to achieve success. You need to build the base and then take steps forward but in Tunisia we just didn’t build on the 2004 generation.

“These guys should be integrated — who wants to be a physio, or a coach or part of the high-performance staff? Instead, it’s nothing and this opportunity to help build the younger generation is lost.” Jaidi also bemoaned Tunisia’s long-time reliance on foreign-born players, insisting that more time should be spent developing clearer pathways for local talent. “We are neglecting players like Radhi Jaidi, like (fellow AFCON-winning defenders) Khaled Badra and Karim Haggui, who came from the south of Tunisia and then went to play for the biggest clubs in Tunisia, then the national team and then moved to Europe.

“Local players are struggling because they have no development, no psychological support. I was shocked when I returned to Tunisia to see that nothing has changed since I left 20 years ago. “We have the potential but we’re not exploiting it. Some of this is because of the rules and government legislation that is stopping us (bringing) in high levels of sponsorship and to monetize football better. “Even with our approach we are one of the best teams in Africa and we make it to the World Cup but we could achieve so much more. There is an incredible amount of natural talent in Tunisia. They just need more support.”

Jaidi was the first Tunisian to play in the Premier League when he signed for Bolton Wanderers in 2004 and while he is pleased to see Mohamed Drager (Nottingham Forest), Hannibal Mejbri (Manchester United) and Anis Ben Slimane (Sheffield United) among the EPL squad lists this season, he notes that none of them were born in Tunisia. “Of course I want to see more Tunisians in the Premier League as this will give a platform for Tunisian football to be better known around the world. The first time I came to England, everyone asked ‘who are you?’ I’d already won the African Nations Cup and played in a World Cup but this is what players are fighting against.

“The lack of Tunisian-born players in England or other big European leagues isn’t surprising to me; again it shows we need to improve how we develop talented players,” Jaidi said. “Honestly, I feel that Morocco and Egypt are far ahead of Tunisia, especially when you look at the local leagues from an operational and organizational perspective.” Jaidi wants to see dramatic changes in the governance of Tunisian football but is not optimistic that a football revolution will be forthcoming.

“It is something that could change in less than 10 years if we act now. But there is a reluctance to have a long-term plan because the people (who) are in charge don’t know if they will be in the same jobs next year. “They need to see that it is not about individuals, it is about a plan that everyone can come together and embrace — that’s how we move forward. “I ask myself these questions every day. When I first came to Bolton, everyone had a picture and a quote on their locker specific to them. Mine was, ‘Fulfilling people’s dreams.’ I have always been proud to represent Tunisian people and I just want the best for Tunisian football.”