Two weeks ago, in front of 60,000 fans, Tunisian side Espérance de Tunis defeated Egypt’s Al-Ahly 3-0 to win the African Champions League for only the third time in their history.
So frequently the bridesmaids and so rarely the brides, Espérance have reached the last four of tournament ten times in their last 16 appearances, but have only won the title twice in that period of time.
A tremendous day for one of Tunisia’s biggest clubs, and an incredibly long way from Strokestown Road in Co. Longford, or Dalymount Park in Dublin.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be honest with you,” begins Dublin-raised defender Ayman Ben Mohamed, who starred at left-back in Espérance’s famous victory.
“To win the Champions League has been the main objective of the club and for me personally, I’ve had a difficult few years since I moved over to Tunisia. It hasn’t been easy. Coming back from injury and not playing and stuff like that so it’s been extra special.”
Born in London to an Irish mother and a Tunisian father, Ayman Ben Mohamed’s young footballing career has seen him pave an unusual road, to say the least.
The 23-year old moved to Ireland when he was two years of age, and began his spell in the League of Ireland with UCD, before moving to Longford Town and later, Bohemians.
Ben Mohamed was one of the league’s most exciting young talents during his brief spell at Dalymount Park and proved to be a fan favourite with the Bohs faithful who even dedicated the outrageously catchy “Ben Mohamed Baby” (to the tune of Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby) chant to the player.
“Yeah, I loved my time in the League of Ireland,” began Ben Mohamed, who clearly still has a fondness for the league in which he got his start.
“Obviously starting off in UCD was the perfect kind of environment for me because I was doing my Leaving Cert and there’s that academic side of things too so I could balance them together and then after that I went to Longford and had a great experience there, a really good season, there was really lovely people at the club and I loved my year there.
“After that, I went to Bohemians which was the next level up from Longford. It was a big club and a lot of people follow them so I thought I could get that spotlight and get my name out there playing with Bohs and it was closer to home and everything too. I really did enjoy my time in the League of Ireland and it really did help me get to where I am at the moment.”
It was during his time with Bohemians where he first caught the eye of representatives from the Tunisian national team. A call-up soon followed, which led to an unusual opportunity for Ben Mohamed, but one that he simply couldn’t turn down.
“The Tunisian national team started following me a little bit,” explained Ben Mohamed who, despite impressing at domestic level, never received an Irish cap at underage level.
“They heard about me because some people in Ireland were sending them over videos so they started following me a little bit when I was in Ireland and then obviously I got the call-up to the Tunisian team for a qualifier, I think it was against Djibouti at the time, so when I went over they got to see me in person and they got to see me training”
“I didn’t play the game but they got to see my level and then clubs in Tunisia started to get in contact and from there I was happy because I knew from before that this club Espérance is a huge club in Tunisia and it’s the top club in Africa now.
“I know that a lot of players come here and they move on to different clubs in Europe. A lot of people watch this team. I felt it was a good option.”
In August 2016, Ben Mohamed left his life in Ireland and made the move to Espérance de Tunis in Tunisia. A move that he knew would benefit him in footballing terms, but at just 21-years of age, Ben Mohamed explained that he found the transition to be a tough one.
“It was very difficult when I first came over to Tunisia.
“It was my first time away from home and everything was really different as you can imagine. I couldn’t get a grasp on the language and the culture is so different too, the style of football , everything, even the weather, so I really did find it difficult at the start to adapt to the team, first few months I didn’t get a lot of game time.
“After that then we got a new coach and he moved me to left back and I started to feel a little bit more comfortable. I was adapting a little bit better but then I tore my cruciate so that was another major set back for me.”
During his first year in Tunisia, it was setback after setback for Ben Mohamed. His difficulties in grasping the vast difference in culture as well as his debilitating knee injury saw him longing for a return to Ireland.
Ben Mohamed was determined, however, and explained that during his rehabilitation he managed to tap into a whole new mindset, which led to a resurgence upon his return.
“When I got my cruciate injury I was like ‘do you know what, this was meant to happen’ and I have to make the most of the situation I have found myself in so I said I’m going to work hard and try to come back stronger than I was before and prove people wrong who didn’t think I could do it.”
After settling in Tunisia, and establishing himself in the left-back position at Espérance during their impressive African Champions League run, Ben Mohamed again received a call-up to the national team, this time making his full debut in a 2-1 victory over Niger.
“Yeah making my international debut was great. I have always wanted to play international football, it’s always been a dream of mine be that with Ireland or with Tunisia, whoever was going to call I wasn’t going to say no so when I got the opportunity to play for Tunisia I took it with both hands.
It didn’t take long for the 23-year old to experience the gravity of the level he was now playing at. Against Egypt, Ben Mohamed explained that he had the unenviable task of marking Liverpool’s mercurial wide man, Mo Salah.
As a Reds fan himself, the former Bohemians man outlined that it was a fantastic experience, conceding that although he didn’t quite have last year’s Premier League Player of the Year in his pocket, he “did alright” against him.
“We played Egypt three days ago and I was marking Mo Salah so that was a nice experience for me, I’m happy.
“I think I did alright against him. He scored the winner and that’s what makes him a top class player. I’m a Liverpool fan myself so it was a nice experience to mark him. You get to feel his level first hand. It was definitely a great learning experience for me for sure.”
A fully fledged Tunisian international, despite growing up and playing most of his football in Ireland, the situation may have arisen where Ben Mohamed could have had to choose between two countries, a trend that has become so prominent in Irish football over the last number of years.
The left-back explained that, although he can understand the difficulties surrounding the choice of the likes of Declan Rice and Jack Grealish before him, his lack of opportunity at underage level for Ireland meant that the decision to represent Tunisia was a no-brainer.
“Unfortunately through my underage career I never got the opportunity to represent Ireland. The only time I got a chance was with the U21s in a home-based squad in a friendly game.
“I would’ve been delighted to play for Ireland had the opportunity arose but nobody seemed to be interested so once Tunisia called I was never going to turn that down because I didn’t really feel like I was getting any opportunity with Ireland so that’s the reason I took the chance on playing for Tunisia and I didn’t think twice about it.”
A Champions League winner and a full international, Ben Mohamed has come a long way since impressing as a young man in the League of Ireland.
Although he still has ambitions of a return to Europe, for now, he can allow himself to revel in his recent accomplishments.
Mo Salah in one pocket, and a Champions League winners medal in the other.