Expanding international tournaments always seems to be a contentious issue, with legitimate concerns about diluting the quality of the tournament at the forefront of naysayer’s minds. Still, the rewards of expansion can be great, not just for the smaller nations but for the tournament as a whole. Few can argue that the qualification of Wales and Iceland in 2016 contributed to some lasting memories of the tournament in both nations’ first ever European Championships. With these memories fresh in the minds of football fans worldwide the Confederation of African Football (CAF) voted in July 2017 to expand the Africa Cup of Nations from 16 to 24 teams beginning in the 2019 edition, mirroring the move made by UEFA.
African qualifiers are notoriously difficult and have a long history of surprising results, making this year’s Cup of Nations qualifying even more chaotic and exciting. The added places in the final tournament have given hope to many of the traditional African minnows – such as Burundi, Madagascar and Lesotho – who are all aiming to qualify for the first time. The most intriguing story after the first two matchday’s, however, comes from the northwest African nation of Mauritania, who top their group with a 100 per cent record after unlikely wins over Botswana and group favorites, Burkina Faso.
A vast country in the Sahara Desert, Mauritania’s history has been marred by political instability, poverty, ethnic tension and human rights violations. Mauritania has virtually no footballing success, the national team having never qualified for the World Cup, Olympic Games or Cup of Nations. The newly formed African Nations Championship, held every two years since 2009, allowing countries to select only players playing in their own domestic leagues, has at least offered Mauritania the rare chance to play in an international tournament, for which they qualified in 2014 and 2018.
While qualifying is an achievement in itself, Mauritania has yet to win a single match at the tournament, losing all six. In club football, sides from Mauritania have also had little success in continental competitions, having won just five ties in the CAF Champions League, and none since the current format was introduced in 1997. No Mauritanian side has ever reached the group stage in the CAF Confederation Cup, Africa’s equivalent to the Europa League, either.
Suffering from disorganisation, irregular matches, a lack of football infrastructure, harsh environmental conditions, and severe financial issues, Mauritanian football reached a low point in late 2012 when the national team fell to a dismal 206th in the FIFA rankings. Despite their past failures, there are plenty of reasons for optimism as they attempt to qualify for their first ever major tournament. Mauritania’s results have been trending upward since the appointment of former French international Corentin Martins as manager in 2014.
Martins, whose coaching career prior to Mauritania can be summed up by two brief, mostly forgettable, caretaker spells in charge of his hometown club Stade Brestois, has managed to put the lowly African nation on the path to redemption. Already, Mauritania have shown signs of improvement under the Frenchman, their qualification campaign for the Cup of Nations in 2017, in particular, was impressive as they finished second in their group behind eventual champions Cameroon, and ahead of South Africa and Gambia.
Together with forward-thinking FA President Ahmed Ould Abderrahmane, Martins has begun the long process of improving Mauritanian football from grassroots through to the national team. This long-term approach has resulted in higher investment in football pitches, youth academies, a TV deal, and an increase in the size of the top two divisions. Despite their progress, however, one can easily see that there is still a long road ahead to reach the level of professionalism found in more established footballing countries. A perfect example of this came in the 2015 Super Cup Final in which the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz reportedly stopped the match after 63 minutes with the score level at 1-1, ordering a penalty shootout due to his boredom.
Still, optimism was high for Mauritania to build on their previous qualification campaign after the draw was announced in early 2017, pitting them alongside Botswana, Angola, and Burkina Faso. For the first time in AFCON history, 24 teams would qualify for the finals, meaning the top two from each group would reach Cameroon in the summer of 2019.
Mauritania began their campaign with a grueling 6,000km trip to Francistown, Botswana, in June 2017. With more than a year until their next qualifier, the first match took on even greater importance for the psychological boost a win could provide. Martins debuted a youthful side, naming three teenagers in the starting XI. Mauritania initially struggled against an out-of-form side, conceding numerous half chances including a first-half free-kick that rattled the crossbar as Brahim Souleymane looked on motionless in goal.
In the 78th minute substitute forward Mohamed Soudani Dicko reacted the quickest to a rather hopeful long pass and calmly slipped the ball through the legs of the onrushing Botswana goalkeeper to put Mauritania in front. After managing to negotiate a nervous final 15 minutes, Mauritania were able to secure a vital three points, setting themselves up for future successes and signaling their intent.
Due to rather bizarre scheduling, Mauritania would have to wait 15 months for their next qualifier, at home to the group’s heavyweights – Burkina Faso. Even with the long wait for competitive action, Mauritania managed to keep the winning feeling going in a friendly win over Guinea in March. Two second-half goals against a strong Guinea side, featuring Florentin Pogba and Kevin Constant, allowed Mauritania to cruise past a side who are regular participants at the Cup of Nations.
Sneakily confident heading into the crucial Burkina Faso match, Martins made three changes to the side that defeated Botswana a year earlier. Mauritania made the breakthrough in the 37th minute in bizarre fashion as a result of Burkinabe goalkeeper Hervé Koffi’s howler. Koffi, having saved a long-range attempt from Adama Ba, tried to play out quickly but his dropkick hit the back of his own centre-half Bakary Koné on the edge of the box. It was Mauritania’s Ismail Diakite who reacted quickest and tapped in to give the home side a surprise lead.
This slice of good fortune for Mauritania briefly unsettled their opposition and three minutes later midfielder Khassa Camara put them 2-0 up after great work by left-back Aly Abeid. Having managed to build an unlikely halftime lead, Mauritania were able to hold on in the second half, securing a historic win in front of their own fans at the Stade Olympique in Nouakchott.
Having managed two wins out of two, Martins’ Mauritania side sit top of the table in Group I, three points ahead of Burkina Faso and Angola. With the home and away fixture against Angola to come in October, Mauritania still have plenty of work to do. If they can manage at least three points against Angola, they should feel confident they can defeat Botswana at home in November which should give them enough points to qualify ahead of their match in Burkina Faso next March.
The increased exposure offered by regular international football, together with improved results, has led to more Mauritanian footballers plying their trade in Europe with players based in Spain, Turkey, Greece and Switzerland representing the national team in recent fixtures. Made up of players from Mauritania’s top division, and those scattered around North Africa and Europe’s lower leagues with sizeable contingents in Tunisia’s top division and France’s Ligue 2, the Mauritanian national side remains somewhat of a mystery to many opponents with little to no tape available for opposing teams to properly scout them.
In 2015, after losing 3-1 in Mauritania, South Africa publicly bemoaned their lack of research and knowledge of the side that had beaten them. This element of surprise is crucial to Mauritania’s success who, despite their constant improvement, are still some way behind many African sides in terms of ability. Martins has frequently talked in interviews about the effort he requires from his players every time they go onto the pitch, stating they cannot afford to be less than their best if they hope to come away with a result. This attitude has put the Mauritanian national side on the verge of accomplishing something that less than a decade ago seemed impossible and could ultimately play a huge role in helping to unite a troubled nation.
Should Mauritania collapse and ultimately fail to qualify for the Cup of Nations they have, at the very least, brought excitement and drama to the qualification process. The same can be said for the likes of Burundi, Madagascar, Lesotho and Guinea-Bissau among others, who look well positioned to challenge for a place in Cameroon next summer. The effects of seeing their team challenging Africa’s traditional elite, whether in qualifying or at the finals, will have positive effects in countries like Mauritania for generations to come. This Mauritanian team has the potential to inspire the stars of the future, in Mauritania and beyond, as well as give the side belief that they can sit at the top table with some of the world’s best players and perform admirably.
Stories like Mauritania show the clear benefit of expanding international tournaments to include more teams. There are obviously arguments against, and confederations must tread carefully, but at the first attempt, the European Championships has given us some truly uplifting underdog stories that help remind fans why they fell in love with football in the first place. The same could happen for Mauritania and African football.