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AFCON: Can Manchester United teenager Hannibal Mejbri be Tunisia’s hero?

If your name is Hannibal and your parents are Tunisians, there is only one destiny and you cannot avoid it. 

Even though you were born and raised in France, played a dozen of matches for the French youth national teams and then signed for Manchester United, the calling of the land where the homonymous great Carthaginian general and statesman reigned cannot be ignored. 

The Tunisian football association (FTF) was aware of this and, when the 18-year-old Hannibal Mejbri agreed to represent the Tunisian national team at the end of May 2021, they set up a press conference in a hotel in Carthage, Tunis, to welcome the player that is widely considered as the new great star of Tunisian football. 

Hannibal Mejbri (right) is seem as Tunisia’s most exciting prospect but the Africa Cup of Nations hasn’t so far gone entirely according to plan for the Manchester United midfielder

The 19-year-old has to date played just eight minutes of first-team football for Man United

The 19-year-old has to date played just eight minutes of first-team football for Man United

Tunisia doesn’t count on footballers in Europe of the same level as neighbouring countries Algeria, Morocco or Egypt. They can’t boast a Riyad Mahrez, a Hakim Ziyech, much less a Mohamed Salah. 

The Tunisian footballer who came closest to that status was former Manchester City right-back Hatem Trabelsi who reached the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals with Ajax in 2003. 

So the hunger to have the chance to enjoy one has meant that the discovery of a potential great Tunisian talent who plays in one of the most successful and well-supported teams in the world prompted the football association to create a great media event for Mejbri’s arrival. 

It’s isn’t since the rise of current captain Youssef Msakni that Tunisia celebrated a footballer so much. 

‘From the moment I arrived in Tunisia, I saw that everyone was waiting for me,’ said Mejbri in a video presentation filmed by the FTF among the Roman theatre and the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage, where the international airport of Tunis is also located.

Mejbri played in Tunisia's opening match at the AFCON but was taken off in a 1-0 defeat

Mejbri played in Tunisia’s opening match at the AFCON but was taken off in a 1-0 defeat

AFCON last eight 

SATURDAY

Gambia vs Cameroon (4pm UK time)

Live on BBC Two, iPlayer and Sky Sports Premier League

Burkina Faso vs Tunisia (7pm)

Live on Sky Sports Premier League

SUNDAY

Egypt vs Morocco (3pm)

Live on Sky Sports Premier League

Senegal vs Equatorial Guinea (7pm)

Live on BBC Two, iPlayer, Sky Sports Football and Premier League

‘This welcoming pleased me and made me happy, and I think it pleased my family, too.’ 

After just eight minutes on the pitch with Manchester United’s first team, Mejbri quickly became a staple for Mondher Kebaier’s Tunisia. 

He made his debut on June 5 in a friendly game against DR Congo, but it was during the 2021 Arab Cup that he made himself known to a greater audience. 

Kebaier took advantage of not being able to use many European-based midfielders to name Mejbri as a starter from the very first game of the competition. 

In the absence of Wahbi Khazri, he wore the No 10 despite not having played as the typical creative attacking midfielder. 

In the national team, Mejbri played the role of an all-action midfielder. 

He brought more vivacity to Tunisia’s play, favouring its fluidity with simple passes and playing mostly with two touches and without forgetting to put the right degree of determination in recovering the ball. 

Mejbri was one of the best players and helped Tunisia reach the final of the tournament. 

Tunisian football fans had already feasted their eyes on the web compilations of Mejbri’s skills and goals with Manchester United under-23 team, and in the Arab Cup he fuelled their hopes of finally having a world star player in their squad. 

He conquered the hearts of Tunisian fans so quickly that most of them still blame manager Kebaier for substituting him in place of a physically exhausted Msakni before the end of regular time. 

Tunisia would end up losing the final to Algeria in the extra time. 

Mejbri shone at the Arab Cup in Qatar last year as he was integrated into the Tunisia side

Mejbri shone at the Arab Cup in Qatar last year as he was integrated into the Tunisia side

He left such a good impression that as soon as he returned to England from the Arab Cup he had to leave for Tunisia after a few days to take part in the preparatory training camp for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON). 

It’s almost a rarity to see a player spending more time with the national team than with his club, but this speaks volumes of the importance that Mejbri already holds for Tunisia. 

He holds it for Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick, too. 

The German coach is keeping a close eye on Mejbri and, after observing him in a few training sessions in late December, he seems eager to involve the Tunisian youngster in his plans as he has already done with the likes of Anthony Elanga, Charlie Savage and Zidane Iqbal. 

United's interim manager Ralf Rangnick is keeping a close eye on the progress of Mejbri

United’s interim manager Ralf Rangnick is keeping a close eye on the progress of Mejbri

During the AFCON, enthusiasm for Mejbri was slightly dampened by a decline in his performance in the first controversial game against Mali. Tunisia lost 1-0 and Mejbri was replaced at half-time. 

His poor display might be due to lack of experience in high level tournaments and to a lower physical preparation also hampered by Covid-19, which Mejbri contracted before leaving for Cameroon. 

Kebaier fielded him, despite Mejbri having joined the team a few hours before Tunisia’s opening game. 

It didn’t go well, so he was benched for the next three games, playing only around 22 minutes in the defeat against Gambia and seeing how his captain Msakni came out of his hibernation of recent months to give Tunisia an unexpected qualification to the quarter-finals against Nigeria. 

Mejbri came off the bench to make his United debut at Wolves on the final day of last season

Mejbri came off the bench to make his United debut at Wolves on the final day of last season

He won’t very likely start from the beginning even in the quarter-finals against Burkina Faso, who are a thorn in the side of the Tunisian national team. 

The North Africans lost against them twice in the quarter-finals – in 1998 in Burkina Faso and in 2017 in Gabon. 

Now is probably the time for Mejbri to learn from the most experienced footballers, and this is nothing to worry about. The ups and downs in the path of a young footballer are to be taken into account. 

When he was presented, Mejbri said he wanted to progress together with the whole team. 

Tunisia celebrate their 1-0 win over Nigeria in the last-16 of the AFCON last week

Tunisia celebrate their 1-0 win over Nigeria in the last-16 of the AFCON last week

He is probably aware that he needs time, and more games with his club, to become an indisputable Tunisia’s starter and possibly the new leader of the team when Msakni, Khazri and the rest of the older generation will step away. 

Mejbri has clear ideas about his future: ‘I want to ensure that my name [Hannibal], which is associated with this city [of Carthage], is also written in the football’s history by winning titles with the Tunisian national team.’ 

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