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AFCON: ASSE's Corsican wizard Wahbi Khazri

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Saint-Etienne's Wahbi Khazri is currently on AFCON duty with Tunisia, doing battle with Africa's best for continental glory. takes the opportunity to retrace the attacking midfielder's career, which began on the Island of Beauty - Corsica.

Wahbi Khazri's deft technique and heavy shot were honed on the grassy pitch of Ajaccio, where everyone remembers a nice kid who is now grown up and representing Corsica at AFCON.

"He developed his technique out here," said 72-year-old coach Francis Thierry, spreading his arms wide to indicate the dirt pitch at the Binda stadium, home of the Jeunesse Sportive Ajaccienne, where Khazri played from the age of four to 14.

"No grass, we don't want it," said the general manager, who coaches every JSA team, from 5 to 18 years old. "On this surface you really have to learn the moves of football, especially the touches; it's more difficult, so you're more concentrated."

Humble beginnings

From the age of four and a half, little Wahbi used to come down from his home, at the A Mandarina apartments, to the Binda. The gifted little boy quickly started to punch above his weight, playing in two age groups at the same time.

"He played in the U13 category against Etoile Filante Bastiaise on Saturday and scored four goals," recalled the footballing honcho. "I upgraded him and put him in the U14 team again on Sunday against Sporting, and he scored three goals! This created some jealousy among parents, but they knew he was the best, that he was the one who finished the moves off."

The Tunisia striker has only good memories of Ajaccio.

"I was happy, I didn't want for anything," he says. "We were a group of friends. I often went to play with the older players, and they knocked on the door to see if I could come with them."

'Without a scratch!'

One of Khazri's older brothers, Foued, still laughs: "My mother wondered, 'What do they want from my child? You make sure you bring him back without a scratch!'."

In the A Mandarina complex, a collection of small faded pink buildings, Wahbi worked on his basics, on whatever space he could find, mostly the bits of garden between the buildings. One of them is L-shaped and sloping, in a small corner.

"One team plays uphill, the other downhill," recalled family friend Anthony Bernardi. "The two goals can't be seen."

A few years later, a city-stadium was built at the entrance to the residence, taking up the after-school hours. This new pitch was a luxury and Wahbi and his friends also used to play on the concrete pitch of the nearby Filosello high school, which the friends call Old Trafford.

"You learn on these pitches," says Anthony Bernardi, echoing Francis Thierry. "On the concrete, you have to stay on your feet."

Corsican and Tunisian

That's how Khazri developed his technical skills, and his secret weapon: the type of thundering shot that saw him score a sublime 68-metre goal against FC Metz in October, a strike that quickly went viral. It was this kind of power that caught the eye of scouts at Bastia, the big club on the island, his island.

"I feel Corsican; I was born in Corsica. I have Tunisian roots through my parents, but I was born there, I have the culture of there," explains Khazri. "I have never felt racism in Corsica. It is a very welcoming land, very warm.

But the playmaker also identifies as Tunisian and was thus proud to answer the call of the Eagles of Carthage, who came calling in 2013, when the young Khazri had one France U21 appearance to his name.

At Bastia, Benoît Tavenot took over from Francis Thierry. The coach remembers the player as "a pure talent".

"We never had the slightest problem with his behaviour. The biggest battle, when he was 15, was with food. He would certainly remember that I caught him in his room with a packet of chips! He was a nice boy, but he didn't have much of a sense of effort at that point. But he moved on, he took charge of himself, he went and got his success."

Khazri should next be in AFCON action when the Eagles of Carthage take on Mauritania in their Matchday 2 clash in Limbé, Cameroon at 17:00 on Sunday 16 January.