Football is a simple game; either a team wins, loses, or the game is drawn. However, like many other things in life, some wins are special. To alter a line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All wins are equal. But some wins are more equal than others. And when referee Omar Abdulkadir Artan blew the final whistle at the Stade de la Paix at the African Cup of Nations, Mauritania had just got a win that can surely be said to be more equal.
Mauritania’s first win at AFCON is a culmination of years of hard work that took a country from the bottom of the international football pyramid to the wonderland where they won against Algeria, one of the powerhouses of African football.
The rise of Mauritania is not down to one single factor but is a combination of good administrators, proper use of FIFA funds, a revolution in youth football, and a resolve to always perform to the best of their abilities.
We trace Mauritania’s rise from being a minnow to a giant killer.
A nation in despair
Like many African countries, Mauritania has been involved in territorial disputes with its neighbouring countries. This has caused wars with Morocco and Algeria over the disputed Western Sahara. This had a trickle-down effect on football, as the nation suffered massively.
They entered qualifications for tournaments such as AFCON and FIFA but never won a game and were always eliminated in the first round. However, the dark days were yet to come as for a period of eight years between 1995-2003, the nation failed to win a single game.
Having such abysmal records meant that no incentive was taken by the country’s football body to improve the infrastructure, as there were no hopes that they could achieve anything meaningful.
Their lowest point came in 2010, though, when they were ranked 207th among the bottom five countries in the world. To make matters worse, the country had also seen two military coups in three years, which threw the nation into instability.
The Rise of Ahmed Yahya
A year after they hit their lowest FIFA rankings ever, Ahmed Yahya was appointed President of the national football federation. Yahya had promised to change the footballing landscape of the nation, but considering their performance and the situation in the country, few expected to see actual progress.
Yahya faced an almost insurmountable mountain, but he took this challenge head-on. One thing he had going for him was that he had managed FC Nouadhiboum, one of the top clubs in the country.
One of the first things he did was to revamp the league structure and make the financial remuneration more transparent for clubs. With this approach, clubs became more confident and started developing infrastructure that would help develop young players.
However, clubs needed more money so their players could have fixed salaries, allowing them to focus solely on their footballing careers. Yahya then persuaded Mauritel, the nation’s biggest telecom company, to sponsor the league.
The money they got was used not only to pay players but also to improve and built new infrastructure. A youth centre was built in 2012, costing $800,000 across 128 square miles.
Another major change that Yahya brought was to recruit players from outside the country who could raise the standards of the national team.
Additional funds of €10 million came from FIFA Goal Project Funds, which was majorly used to renovate their national stadium. The rest was used to raise a permanent under-15 team that used the same facilities as the senior squad.
All this started to have an effect from 2014 as Mauritania began to rise in FIFA rankings.
Mauritania fans celebrating after beating Algeria 1-0 to qualify for the Round of 16 at the AFCON for the first time ever.
This is Mauritania’s first ever win at the AFCON. pic.twitter.com/wPCtf1qSl0
— Africa Facts Zone (@AfricaFactsZone) January 24, 2024
AFCON qualification dream fulfilled
However, Mauritania’s dream of playing in a major tournament remained unfulfilled. That changed in 2019 when they finished second in their qualification group. What was impressive about their qualification campaign was that the team was only second on goal difference.
This earned them their first taste of continental football, and although they finished at the bottom of the group, they earned two draws to their names. Mauritania had cleared a big barrier by qualifying for AFCON, and now their main focus was to break into Africa’s elites.
Mauritania achieved consecutive AFCON qualification in 2021, but their campaign ended in disaster as they lost all three of their games. The team were disappointed but there were some hopes. In their squad, Mauritania had named several young players such as Abdoulkader Thiam (23), Beyatt Lekweiry (16), Abdallahi Mahmoud (21), Mohamed El Mokhtar (!9), Hemeya Tanju y(23), and Idrissa Thiam (21). This was the result of the establishment of the under-15 academy, which was finally bearing fruits.
2023 AFCON first win and Mauritania in dreamland
While Mauritania may have had a woeful 2021 AFCON campaign, the squad they built was now strong enough to qualify for the AFCON. Hence, they secured their consecutive AFCON qualification by finishing second in their group.
However, Mauritania had arrived with a special person for the tournament this time. After their exit from the 2921 AFCON, Amir Abdou was appointed the national team’s head coach.
Abdou had taken Comoros to the knockout round of the 2021 AFCON, which was also their maiden appearance at the tournament.
And it was under the enigmatic Frenchman that Mauritania defeated Algeria in the final group game. It was their first-ever victory in the African Cup of Nations. In addition, this helped them finish third in the group, which earned them qualification for the knockouts, another historic achievement.
Unfortunately, their journey ended at the hands of Cape Verde in the round of 16. However, for Mauritania, it is just the start of a journey that is bound to have a great ending that will be etched in the golden pages of football history and whose tales will become a part of football folklore.