Tunisian support for 2004 hero Jaziri splits opinion

By Mourad TeyebBBC Sport, Tunis
Zied Jaziri
Zied Jaziri (left) celebrates with his team-mates after Tunisia win the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time, beating Morocco on home soil in the 2004 final

Former Africa Cup of Nations hero Zied Jaziri may have been cheered by the sight - but the Tunisian team's decision to wear T-shirts in his solidarity has split opinion back home.

On Monday, the two teams met at the competition for the first time since but while some of Jaziri's team-mates were still on the pitch, such as defender Karim Hagui, the former forward was behind bars.

He has been in prison since last June on drug-trafficking charges.

Many believe the real reason for his imprisonment lies elsewhere - namely, in politics.

The ex-footballer is married to the niece of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in the Tunisian revolution this time last year.

After the Tunisians' victory, which also ended 2-1, the national team players sported T-shirts saying "Solidarity with Jaziri".

Tunisians reacted to the move with a mix of surprise and anger.

Following the Jasmine revolution, Jaziri's father-in-law and two brothers-in-law were also arrested on several corruption charges - including drugs, arms and wine trafficking.

Jaziri was born in Sousse, growing up in the popular but poor neighbourhood of Gabadji, where the former footballer is a symbol of success and generosity for today's youth.

Both on and off the pitch, the 33-year-old has always been hugely popular in Sousse but he does not enjoy the same adulation away from the city.

While most Tunisians recognise his qualities as a footballer and the role he played in winning the country's sole Nations Cup title to date, they seem to have little respect for Jaziri.

Tunisian players Aymen Mathlouthi and Yacine Chikhaoui
Tunisia's players sport T-shirts in support of Jaziri after Morocco game

They resent what was seen as his arrogant behaviour over the last five years.

On two occasions, he insulted policemen and fans in the Rades Stadium just outside Tunis after his former club Etoile du Sahel lost games to bitter rivals Club Africain and Esperance.

Etoile fans were also unhappy as they believed that Jaziri forced himself onto Etoile's executive board and he soon took on a very delicate task - that of first-team manager.

During his time in charge, Etoile spent a fortune on current Carthage Eagle Adel Chedli, ex-international Francisco Silva Dos Santos and Senegal's Lamine Diatta - but all failed to deliver.

Despite these failings, many current national players - such as Hagui, Aymen Mathlouthi, Yassine Chikhaoui, Issam Jemaa, Aymen Chermiti - are good friends with Jaziri.

The former Etoile du Sahel, Gaziantepspor, Troyes and Al-Kuwait striker was also in the same Tunisia squads as current coach Sami Trabelsi as well.

So Monday's scene of solidarity with Jaziri is easy to understand although it is most noteworthy that not one Tunisian newspaper or online article mentioned the scene in Libreville.

The players' action might have been prompted by the recent release of Haythem Abid, a former Esperance playmaker who spent 16 years in jail for drug trafficking.

Once a star of the future for Tunisia, Abid seemingly got involved in the drug business while playing for Sporting Braga in Portugal.

Despite having been handed down a 26-year sentence, he was released 12 days ago as the Justice Ministry of Tunisia's first elected government issued an amnesty to some 9,000 prisoners.

This was to celebrate the first anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution - and now the country's national football team are hoping that the divisive Jaziri might be the next man to profit from such largesse.