There was heartbreak across Tunisia as the Carthage Eagles fell short in their FIFA World Cup™ quest last time out. Drawn against the Indomitable Lions in the final round of African qualifying, Tunisia kept their hopes alive with a 0-0 draw at home, before Cameroon pipped them to Brazil with a resounding 4-1 triumph in the second leg. That result meant a second consecutive absence from the finals, with Tunisia's bid to grace South Africa 2010 having ended when they finished a point behind Nigeria in the group stage.
The loss to Cameroon still rankles, and Abdennour can still recall the anguish vividly – even though he was not involved. "I couldn't take part because of an injury, but I followed the two games closely," he told FIFA.com. "We were better than Cameroon, but we let our chance of winning and qualifying for the World Cup slip away.
"That elimination was tough to take because qualification was within our reach. Tunisia had players capable of making the difference at the time, but in the end we came up short. That episode was one of the most difficult I've experienced in my career as a footballer."
The key now is to ensure a different outcome en route to Russia 2018, and Tunisia have already booked a spot in the final qualifying round by defeating Mauritania 2-1 at home and away. "The first round was important for us because qualification for the greatest competition in football was at stake," said Abdennour.
"It wasn't easy against Mauritania, who've caused problems for some big teams in recent months. We were trailing by a goal in the first game but managed to come back and win it, thanks to the character of my team-mates. I couldn't play either match because of injury, but my heart was with my colleagues. I watched both games full of confidence and was very happy when we qualified."
Tunisia will continue their campaign with a side boasting a number of young talents and several experienced older hands. And while the younger players such as Abdennour will still be around to vie for a berth at Qatar 2022, the veterans are keenly aware that, for them, it is now or never.
"Some of the players in our team know that Russia 2018 is their last chance to play in a World Cup," explained the defender. "That's why we don't want to miss our chance. It's every footballer's dream to play in a World Cup."
A lesson learnt
That dream has only increased in magnitude since Tunisia missed out last time around, and the memory of watching the tournament from home has galvanised the Carthage Eagles. "We're determined to draw a line under our loss to Cameroon in 2013," said Abdennour.
"We have a squad capable of meeting the challenge and bringing joy to the people of Tunisia. We've learnt our lesson and everyone in the team wants to win. I just hope that luck will be on our side in the qualifiers this time because competition will be stiff. I think Tunisian football doesn't deserve to miss out on the finals three times in a row."
All eyes in Africa will now be focused on Cairo on 24 June, when the draw for the group stage will illuminate the qualifying picture across the continent. The tension is mounting, but does Abdennour have any particular hopes for the draw? "The standard of African teams has improved a lot over the last few years," he said.
"We respect all our opponents and we know qualification will depend on our ability to play at our level. So we're not going to focus on our opponents – we're more afraid of ourselves than our rivals. We have to learn the lessons of our past qualifying campaigns so that we can make the dream of the Tunisian people come true."
Although he is just 26 years of age, Abdennour is already one of the more experienced members of the side, and he realises that his own form will be crucial to Tunisia's chances. "I've been playing in the senior team since 2008 and I consider myself fortunate to be involved.
"I've picked up experience by competing in major tournaments and that puts a certain amount of responsibility on my shoulders – both on and off the pitch. I help the young players a lot, and on the pitch I work even harder so that I can set an example. Everyone expects me to be at my best each time I walk on the pitch with the national team."