Football: World Cup: Kasperczak's shock troupe

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ON A balmy evening in the centre of Montelimar, the small Provencal town where Tunisia are putting the final touches to their preparations for today's meeting with England in Marseilles, the North African community have taken to their cars and are jamming the roads with horns blaring.

The sight of hundreds of red and white Tunisian flags adorning buildings and street lamps could lead an outsider to assume that the cavalcade is in honour of the team. It turns out to be a wedding celebration. Out in the suburb of Montbroucher-sur-Jabron, the players who will stand between Glenn Hoddle and a positive start to the World Cup campaign are watched by only a handful of admirers.

The ground where Tunisia have trained for their biggest match since 1978 - when they beat Mexico and drew with the then-holders, West Germany, in the finals - has the impressive title of the Stade de L'Hippodrome. If the name conjures up faded vaudevillian grandeur, the reality is one covered terrace which would hold 200 spectators at most.

The rest resembles nothing so much as a municipal park. It is a modest setting for a nation of modest resources and expectations, light years removed from the high-rise stands of the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles. As the players sign autographs, the dozen or so journalists - which in itself must be a record low for the tournament - are told to make their way to the press conference.

Another Spartan surprise: after the all-digital information super-highway madness of the media centres in the big cities, we are ushered to a dingy dressing-room where the smell of Deep Heat still clings to the fixtures and fittings. The reporters squeeze in where many an amateur must have sat down the decades to take a half-time rollicking from the gaffer.

The Tunisia coach, Henryk Kasperczak, finally arrives and faces us across a bare table. With his Kirk Douglas-style quiff of silvery hair, the former Polish international defender looks older than his 51 years. But this will be no routine procession of platitudes; he has an announcement to make:

"As of today, I am the new manager of Bastia," Kasperczak explains. "I have waited for the Tunisian football federation to make a proposition to me but they have not done so. Now at least I know where I will be next season, so that we can get on with the World Cup."

Bastia, based on the island of Corsica, are a perennial mid-table outfit in the French First Division. Kasperczak, who has coached at Metz, Strasbourg, St Etienne, Racing Club Paris and Montpellier, goes on to reveal that his first recruit will be Tunisia's Brazilian-born defender, Jose Clayton.

While his return to club football has been mooted for some time, the timing of the announcement seems injudicious. Kasperczak insists it will not affect morale and says he is concentrating solely on the England match. However, Tunisia's players could clearly have done without the uncertainty of not knowing who will be in charge once they leave France.

Kasperczak, who has also led Tunisia to the African Nations' Cup final and the Olympics during his four-year tenure, confesses that his greatest concern is England's sheer physical power. He mentions the aerial strength of Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Tony Adams, but adds: "They have some good players, but no great players.

"They have proved nothing so far, unlike Brazil, and have won nothing except for the Le Tournoi last year. We have nothing to lose against England. We're physically and tactically prepared and we're looking forward to it."

The relative strength of league football in Tunisia, which has gone professional during Kasperczak's reign and enjoys subsidies from the state as well as corporate sponsorship, is proving a double-edged sword. Players are content to stay at home, enjoying a high standard of living, rather than developing their skills in Europe.

Only four of the squad play abroad. Kasperczak will inherit the former West Ham trialist goalkeeper, Ali Boumnijel, at Bastia, while Mehdi Ben Slimane and Zubeir Beya play in the German Second Division.

The striker Adel Sellimi, registered with Nantes, but on long-term loan to the Spanish minnows Real Jaen, takes heart from the performances of other African and Arab sides in the finals. He hopes that Tunisia can be to France 98 what Cameroon were to Italia 90.

"There is always one team that shocks the World Cup," he says. "We believe it could be us this time. England expect a comfortable victory but that could play into our hands.

"The whole thing is massive for our country, and a great opportunity for all the players. A good tournament can open the doors to playing for a big team in Europe - maybe even in England."