For French-born Wahbi Khazri, Wednesday night in the Education City Stadium could have been very different. He could have been wearing a blue shirt to power the Les Bleus to a third straight win. But it was not to be. Instead, he opted to wear the colors of former colonists Tunisia and scored the only goal of the game to help them claim a famous 1-0 win over the tournament holders.
Tunisia will see this as their last bow at the World Cup as they crash out having failed to reach the last 16, unlike Les Bleus, but the symbolism of the match up at the global stage – of which there has been no shortage this world cup – would mean more than the gilded trophy for them.
France coach Didier Deschamps, whose team were already through to the knockouts, made nine changes and were unrecognizable from their usual selves and Khazri punished them in the 58th minute at Education City Stadium.
Tunisia then had to hold on for the victory as an Antoine Griezmann goal in stoppage time was disallowed following a VAR review.
Khazri, who grew up in Corsica and plays in Ligue 1 for Montpellier, was one of six players in the Tunisian line-up who were born on French soil and he was capped by France at Under-21 level.
There is a large Tunisian community in France who will savor the result, the country’s first win against European opposition at a World Cup and just their third ever in 18 matches at the tournament.
However, they needed Australia to drop points in the day’s other Group D game to stand a chance of reaching the last 16 for the first time.
The Socceroos’ 1-0 win over Denmark means it is they who go through with France.
The world champions and Australia finished level on six points, but France top the section on goal difference and will await the Group C runners-up in the last-16 on Sunday.
Les Bleus had been the first team to secure a place in the next round after winning their opening two games in Qatar so it was no surprise that Deschamps opted to make changes.
Kylian Mbappe was one of those to drop out, with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Randal Kolo Muani getting his first international start up front.
There was also a start at right-back for Axel Disasi, the first outfield player to make his France debut in a World Cup match since 1966, while Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga started at left-back.
Griezmann denied equaliser
France were unrecognizable as Deschamps repeated what he had done four years ago, when he made sweeping changes for the final group game against Denmark.
The result then was a soporific 0-0 draw which did not ultimately stop France from winning the title.
This time France’s second string performed as if they had never played together before and Tunisia -– with a partisan crowd behind them – sensed their chance as they looked to get beyond the group stage at a World Cup for the first time.
The crowd erupted when Tunisia put the ball in the net just eight minutes in.
Nader Ghandri diverted a Khazri free-kick past Steve Mandanda, but he was just offside.
Starting at this World Cup for the first time, captain Khazri also stung the palms of Mandanda with a volley in the 35th minute, while a shot that Kingsley Coman skewed well wide was as close as France came.
They were disjointed, and it was no surprise when Tunisia took the lead.
France appealed in vain for a foul as Youssouf Fofana was dispossessed by Ellyes Skhiri, and Khazri ran through before slotting a shot past Mandanda.
Deschamps then sent on Mbappe as well as Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele in an attempt to avoid France’s first World Cup group-stage defeat since their disastrous 2010 campaign.
Griezmann thought he had equalized deep into injury time when he volleyed home inside the box, but the referee disallowed the goal for offside after a lengthy VAR review.