On Friday we woke up for the first time in Tunisia, not counting cat naps on the bus yesterday.
We had breakfast at 8:00am and a training at 10:00am on a rugby field that adjoins the stadium. The field had a big rain puddle (essentially a pond) at one end so people were taking turns getting ankle-deep in the swamp to fish out errant balls.
Teams were arranging informal scrimmages so we hooked up with Czech Republic for a game with two 12 minute halves. As unlikely as it seems, this might have been the first minifootball game the USNAST has actually played. The 2015 World Cup was played arena soccer-style and our 12-game summer tour was all played within the confines of dasherboards.
The first half of the scrimmage was scoreless with Boris Pardo making two big saves, but Czech Republic had the edge in possession in chances. In the second half, Czech Republic generated even more chances and scored two goals against Casey Gasson on break outs.
It ended as a 2-0 loss in a game that didn’t count, wasn’t on a regulation sized field, wasn’t played with regulation goals, and didn’t even have referees, but it might have been the wake-up call the US team needs to focus and come together.
Before lunch, one US player averted disaster in the lobby when a Russian player turned in a billfold to me that had the player’s credit cards and more, that must have dropped on his seat in the lobby (thanks Russia for real!).
After lunch, the team went to scout a scrimmage between Russia and Kazakhstan. At 5:30 we went to the stadium for the opening ceremonies.
Stadium construction was ongoing until the end. Parts of the sidelines were regraded and the field was re-compacted. A canopy was put up over one section of seats and a VIP section was erected in front of the media deck. An entire street was paved in the space that was a muddy dirt road just yesterday.
Police in tactical gear were all over the stadium. Of course WMF wants to have a successful event, but the event is also of paramount importance to the local economy which depends on tourism. The games are all being broadcast live on Nessma TV which is a national Tunisian channel that also reaches nearby countries like Libya, Algeria and Morocco.
The opening ceremonies included a presentation of the flags of all 24 teams. Several teams in the stands tried to out-chant each other and the mood was festive.
A well-known Swedish pan flute player, Dana Dragomir, performed and there was a light show and pyrotechnics.
A legends match followed and finally the opening World Cup game between Tunisia and Portugal. Tunisia held on for a 3-2 win to the delight of the packed stadium. The players celebrated their victory back at the hotel.
Speaking of the hotel there are a couple interesting quirks. There is a slot on the wall for your room key that activates the electricity in the room. The first day we plugged our phones in to charge and went to eat, not realizing that the whole time we were gone our phones were not charging.
In the bathroom (in addition to toilet paper, thankfully) there is a bidet shower, which is a hose on the wall by the toilet for washing your “undercarriage.” Gordy Gurson tried to brush his teeth with it. OK, well I don’t know for sure that he DIDN’T try to do that.
There is a lot of good-natured ribbing. The team trainer Shelby Daly is constantly serenaded with a “Shelby, Shelby” chant by the players. Bernie has dubbed me, “Casper”, I assume because I’m bald and don’t get a lot of sun, but several of us actually got a pretty good sun burn at training yesterday.
It was hard to fall asleep last night. I feel like I have adjusted to the time change well, but I didn’t get to sleep until around 2:00am. Several of the players stayed up late watching the USMNT play Panana in their important qualifier.