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Tunisia can do some great things in China, warns Salah Mejri
DALLAS (USA) - Gone are the days when Tunisia headed to major international tournaments to learn, enjoy the moment of facing world superstars, and return home empty-handed.
Reacting to last week's FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 draw in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, Tunisians sensed they can do a lot better this year than they did nine years ago when they made their World Cup debut in Turkey.
Drawn in Group C, the North African will go up against Spain, Puerto Rico and Iran in Guangzhou from August 31 to September 4.
"SPAIN ARE A TOP-3 TEAM IN THE WORLD FOR A REASON. AS FOR IRAN AND PUERTO RICO - AND BASED ON THE TEAMS THAT PLAYED IN THE QUALIFIERS - I BELIEVE WE HAVE SIMILAR CHANCES TO REACH THE SECOND ROUND."
And if you think they will be in China to make up numbers, think again.
Just like head coach Mario Palma who described Spain as "the strongest team in the group", Tunisia ace Salah Mejri admitted that facing the 2006 World Cup winners will prove challenging although, he believed that "anything is possible"
“Spain is a [World] powerhouse team, and everybody knows what how they play," the former Real Madrid center who currently plays for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks said to FIBA.basketball.
Tunisia qualified for the China 2019 on the back of a successful campaign where they won 10 out their 12 games.
The African reigning champions became a respected team not only on the continent of Africa but also across the world in recent years, and they will look to take their chances in China after losing all their five games in Turkey in 2010.
"I am really excited to get there and play this World Cup," the 2.16m (7ft1n) center explained, adding: "We are going to do our best and try to have fun, but we won’t lose focus and we'll try to achieve some good results in China to make our people back home proud and happy. Taking part in a tournament like the World Cup means a lot to me and my national team teammates."
Footage of Tunisia power forward Mohamed Hadidane asking USA's Kobe Bryant for an autograph circulated on internet during the 2012 London Olympics, but Salah who was part of that Tunisian team in the British capital, warns they have moved on.
"This is our second World Cup appearance. Back in 2010, we were just happy to go there and enjoy the experience. Then, we qualified for the London Olympics , it was a similar story - we were there to enjoy the experience," Mejri recalled.
"But we have also grown as a team and learned a lot from those experiences. As this is third time that we qualify for a major tournament, we hope to go to China, play and compete to win some games.
"We are now experienced enough to compete against any team. We are not going to China just to make up numbers.This is almost the same group players from 2010, with a few changes. And based on our recent results, I can safely say that this is the best generation of Tunisia players in years, and we can do some great things in China," the 32-year-old said.
But what exactly does the man, who averaged 8.7 points and 10 rebounds in three African Qualifiers games, make of Iran and Puerto Rico?
“It’s hard to access our group because the teams that played in the Qualifiers might not be the same team that will play in the World Cup. But if we speak about the history of those teams, then, there is no doubts Spain, Puerto Rico and Iran are very good teams. But we can compete against them. We’ll see what kind of team they bring to the World Cup," Mejri replied.
"Spain are are a top-3 team in the world for a reason. As for Iran and Puerto Rico - and based on the teams that played in the Qualifiers, I believe we have similar chances to reach the Second Round," he added.
Under FIBA's new competition, the best team from a qualifying zone at China 2019 will automatically qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while the second and third-best placed team from Africa will have a second chance playing Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.
And although Mejri has his reservations about the Olympics qualifying system, he says: "We’ll try to be best team from the African zone. We have to go there, compete and we’ll try to make it to Tokyo in 2020. If we can do that, it will be a huge achievement for Tunisian basketball."