Mauritania's Half-Century Expedition to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations

Updated on October 25, 2019
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Russian Area Studies and Journalism.

Fans in attendance celebrate during a qualification match between Mauritania and Botswana in Nouakchott, Mauritania on Nov. 18, 2018. Mauritania won the match 2-1 to secure a berth to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Fans in attendance celebrate during a qualification match between Mauritania and Botswana in Nouakchott, Mauritania on Nov. 18, 2018. Mauritania won the match 2-1 to secure a berth to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. | Source

Hope is always there for a country looking to garner respect. All it takes is one moment for this hope to be worthwhile. In a region where football is the primary sport, there is also a nation that is just looking to begin a new chapter in their footballing history.

It was not long ago that Mauritania was beyond irrelevant in football as lack of games sent this former French colony into a nadir. However, a special moment happened when Mauritania finally began playing. The nation started competing and in the process won games. First, it involved getting more local support and then the unthinkable happened.

Mauritania, a nation that did not win its first game almost 17 years after independence, qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Not bad for a country that at one point only amassed only three measly points in the FIFA Rankings.

Winning Hard to Come By

Mauritania's first game came on Dec. 25, 1961, but it was not until Apr. 12, 1963, when it played its first game as an independent nation. However, for nearly two decades, futility became a theme in Mauritania. From its first match until 1980, Mauritania failed to win even a single game. In that span, Mauritania suffered its worst losses in 1972; an 11-0 loss against Mali preceded a 13-0 defeat to Guinea.

It would not be until Feb. 12, 1980, when Mauritania won a game during a regional tournament for West African nations called the Amilcar Cup. Later that year, Mauritania won its first continental qualifying match, though the 2-1 victory was not enought to send Mauritania to the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations.

After finishing fourth as hosts of the 1983 Amilcar Cup, Mauritania would not even win a game at this tournament until 12 years later when the competition came back to Mauritania. There, Mauritania reached the final with a 1-0 victory over Guinea-Bissau. However, Sierra Leone spoiled the home crowd with a penalty shootout victory, and what ensued for nearly a decade became another drought.

Mauritania would be ranked 85th in the FIFA Rankings in December 1995. It would be nearly 22 years until Mauritania eclipsed this feat.

The Pride of Nouakchott

Stade Olympique in Nouakchott is the primary home venue for Mauritania's football national team. This stadium was the site of Mauritania's 3-1 upset victory against South Africa on Sept. 5, 2015.
Stade Olympique in Nouakchott is the primary home venue for Mauritania's football national team. This stadium was the site of Mauritania's 3-1 upset victory against South Africa on Sept. 5, 2015. | Source
Also located in Nouakchott is the smaller Stade Cheikha Ould Boïdiya. This stadium would witness Mauritania's historic 2-1 victory against Botswana on Nov. 18, 2018.
Also located in Nouakchott is the smaller Stade Cheikha Ould Boïdiya. This stadium would witness Mauritania's historic 2-1 victory against Botswana on Nov. 18, 2018. | Source

Dried Up Again For Nearly A Decade

Following the 1995 Amilcar Cup, Mauritania returned to World Cup qualifying for the first time in 20 years. Their first qualification campaign ended at home on Mar. 28, 1976 with a 2-0 defeat to Upper Volta (now present-day Burkina Faso). On May 31, 1996, Mauritania and Burkina Faso kicked off what would be the first of 91 World Cup qualifiers in Africa as Mauritania held Burkina Faso to a goalless draw at home. Nearly three weeks, Burkina Faso sent Mauritania out of the tournament with a 2-0 result.

Burkina Faso was also hosting the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations; for Mauritania to get there, they would have to first get past Benin. However, two months after losing in Ouagadougou, Mauritania were handed a 4-1 defeat courtesy of a Leon Bassan hat trick. The result proved too much for Mauritania to overcome.

Failing to win became a theme for Mauritania for the next six years, both in Africa and even in Asia. The latter included losing all three games during the 1997 Pan Arab Games, which included losses to a reserve team from Kuwait, an under-21 team from the United Arab Emirates and Syria. Later that year, Mauritania only mustered two draws during the Amilcar Cup, with a loss to tournament hosts the Gambia costing Mauritania a knockout berth.

However, the second of the two draws, a 2-2 result against the Cape Verde Islands on Dec. 2, 1997, would be Mauritania's last game for over two years. Following two draws against the Gambia, Mauritania kicked off qualification for the 2002 World Cup once again in Nouakchott. When it completed both qualifiers, Mauritania lost 5-1 on aggregate to eventual participants Tunisia.

A month later, Mauritania had two additional draws in the Amilcar Cup, but they were not enough to overcome a group stage opening 1-0 loss to Guinea-Bissau.
Mauritania followed that tournament with a pair of matches against Burkina Faso. These two matches were qualifying for the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, with Burkina Faso's 3-0 aggregate win knocking out Mauritania.

2008 Africa Cup of Nations Qualification Group B

 
W
D
L
PTS
Egypt
3
3
0
12
Mauritania
2
1
3
7
Burundi
2
1
3
7
Botswana
2
1
3
7
Egypt qualified for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations. Mauritania (+2) finished ahead of Burundi (+1) and Botswana (-1) on goal difference among the three teams. Mauritania was the worst runner-up among the 11 eligible groups during qualification.

So Close Before Sinking into the Abyss...Yet Again

During its qualification phase for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations, Mauritania scored zero goals in the six matches. The most notable result of that qualification campaign came on June 21, 2003. Mauritania lost 3-0 to the Cape Verde Islands in a game the referee had to abandon the game after 85 minutes due to Mauritania having had five players sent off.

The nation also extended its winless run, having last won a match on Nov. 25, 1995. Qualifying for the 2006 World Cup (also doubling that of the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations) would be brief for Mauritania. Despite losing the first leg at Zimbabwe 3-0 in Harare, Mauritania scored twice in the opening 10 minutes to make it a contest. However, Mauritania never got the tying goal and exited 4-2 on aggregate. It would be another three years before another match, let alone another qualification campaign.

Mauritania began qualifying for the 2008 edition with an emphatic result at home in Nouakchott, with all four of their goals in the opening 31 minutes in a shutout against Botswana on Sept. 2, 2006. It would be one of the highlights during Mauritania's campaign in a group that also featured Burundi and Egypt, the reigning continental champions. Road woes cost Mauritania dearly; despite finishing in second, Mauritania lost all three road games in qualifying and would finish as the worst runner-up.

Between 2006 and 2007, it seemed as if Mauritania had a glimmer of hope. After all, the nation had also achieved what remains its most massive victory to date - an 8-2 win over Somalia. However, in 2008, Mauritania proceeded to lose all six qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup (which double with the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations) as it allowed 19 goals while only scoring three. Mauritania's games with Ethiopia in June 2018 would be devastating (especially since these matches became annulled for Ethiopia due to its suspension from FIFA). On June 14, Saladin Said scored an injury time goal in Nouakchott to break a scoreless draw. Nine days later, the match was tied at 1-1 at halftime when Ethiopia scored five goals, including three in the final 10 minutes to win 6-1.

After those qualifiers, Mauritania managed to play only one game between 2009 and 2011 - a scoreless draw against Palestine in Beirut, Lebanon in 2010. Winning was still hard to come by, no matter the opposition. That included a 3-1 to Iraqi Kurdistan during 2012 Palestine International Cup; this was notable because Iraqi Kurdistan is a non-FIFA member. Although it would win two games against Liberia late in 2012, Mauritania was still in the abyss.

In November 2012, Mauritania would be the fourth-lowest ranked nation in the FIFA Rankings.

How Low Can You Go?

Ranking
Nation
Points
201
Somalia
14
202
Mauritius
13
t-203
Andorra
11
t-203
Djibouti
11
205
Anguilla
4
206
Mauritania
3
t-207
Bhutan
0
t-207
San Marino
0
t-207
Turks & Caicos Islands
0
The FIFA World Rankings released from Jan. 17, 2013. It was the third consecutive time that the bottom five stayed this way.
Taghiyoullah Denna (green #17) and Aly Abeid (green #3) are in action for Mauritania during a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualify in Juba, South Sudan. This qualifier spanned two days during October 2015 due to torrential rain.
Taghiyoullah Denna (green #17) and Aly Abeid (green #3) are in action for Mauritania during a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualify in Juba, South Sudan. This qualifier spanned two days during October 2015 due to torrential rain. | Source

French Influence Helps Achieve Major Strides

Its two victories over Liberia to end 2012 may not have counted as FIFA internationals, but Mauritania was chasing history. These two matches against Liberia were qualification matches for another tournament. The manager in charge of those victories was Patrice Neveu, who had once guided a 2006 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinalist in Guinea. On July 20, 2013, Neveu and Mauritania made history when it overcame a 1-0 first-leg loss to defeat Senegal 2-0 in the second leg. This result secured qualification for the 2014 African Nations Championship, Mauritania's first major tournament.

In preparation for the tournament, Mauritania's notable results included a 1-0 victory over Canada on Sept. 10, 2013, and a 3-2 win over Mozambique. In its first African Nations Championship, Mauritania played brave performances against DR Congo, Burundi, and Gabon. Despite scoring four goals in the three matches, Mauritania lost all three of their games.

After losing 1-0 to DR Congo, Mauritania began its second game with an early strike from Ely Cheikh Samba Ould Voulany. Burundi later tied the match and took the lead before Taghiyoullah Denna scored in the 70th for what seemed to end up being a 2-2 draw. However, Selemani Yamin Ndikumana's injury time goal confirmed Mauritania's elimination with one game left.

Despite nothing to play for in the final match, Mauritania scored another early goal from Cheikh Moulaye Ahmed against Gabon. His second goal put Mauritania ahead 2-1 as it was seeking to spoil Gabon's chances at reaching the quarterfinals. However, three goals in the final ten minutes (including two injury time goals from Tatry Bonaventure Sokambi) saw Mauritania exit without a point.

Following that tournament, Mauritania kicked off what was the first of 101 qualifiers for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Adama Ba's 23rd-minute goal against Mauritius was the first goal of the qualification phase. Mauritania reached the second round of qualifying, with Uganda knocking out Mauritania on Aug. 3, 2014 thanks to a Robert Ssentongo goal. Mauritania was not even supposed to play Uganda but received an invite after Equatorial Guinea, who knocked Mauritania out with a 3-0 victory on June 1, 2014, had an ineligible player in Thierry Fidjeu. Mauritania hoped for another upset, but following its elimination against Uganda needed a new manager.

Mauritania hired former French international Corentin Martins as Neveu's replacement. Martins began his coaching career in the Britanny region with Quimper Cornouaille FC, (a club in France's fourth division), while also having three stints as a caretaker for Brest. In one stint, Martins managed to keep Brest in Ligue 1 during the 2012-13 season. In the following season, Martins took over for the club a second time but could not save the club from relegation.

Martins now had the task of keeping Mauritania on the upward trend.

A Mauritanian player battles for the ball with two South African players during a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match in Nelspruit, South Africa. With the 1-1 draw in this match, Mauritania finished second in its qualifying group.
A Mauritanian player battles for the ball with two South African players during a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match in Nelspruit, South Africa. With the 1-1 draw in this match, Mauritania finished second in its qualifying group. | Source

Meaning Business

Mauritania hoped to cause an upset during its 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. On Apr. 8, 2015, Mauritania learned it would face Cameroon, South Africa, and the Gambia during qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Results were significant since Cameroon was the lowest-ranked team out of Pot 1 and South Africa was the highest-ranked team out of Pot 2.

In their opening qualifying match away in Yaounde, Mauritania held their own in their first meeting with Cameroon. The game was scoreless, and Mauritania was hanging on for an historic point until Vincent Aboubakar scored the 89th-minute goal to deny Mauritania a draw. However, three months later, Mauritania would get a notable result at home in Nouakchott's Stade Olympique.Mauritania would be up 1-0 after only five minutes, with Yacoub Aly Abeid scored his second goal for the county. Mauritania kept the led for a little over an hour until South Africa scored with a goal from Thamsanqa Gabuza. Mauritania replied with two goals in eight minutes. Boubacar Bagili put Mauritania ahead 2-1 in the 77th minute, while Ahmed's 85th-minute goal sealed Mauritania's historic upset in Nouakchott.

A little over six months later, Ahmed's two goals against the Gambia, including an injury time goal, made Mauritania a contender for a shock berth at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. However, five days after the 2-1 victory against the Gambia at home, Mauritania suffered a stunning result as it would manage a goalless draw in Bakau. Mauritania hoped for a third home qualifying victory against Cameroon, but Edgar Salli's goal 29 minutes into the game was the difference in Cameroon winning. However, Mauritania finished qualifying respectably as a 1-1 draw in Nelspruit against South Africa allowed the nation to finish second, ahead of South Africa.

Following its 3-1 victory over South Africa, Mauritania completed in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Mauritania would be too much for South Sudan in October 2015. In the following month, Mauritania took the lead on a 32nd-minute goal from Oumar N'Daiye. Mauritania allowed two goals in six minutes to lose the first leg 2-1 at home. Five days later in Rades, Mauritania tied the second leg at 1-1 on a goal from Cheikh Moulaye Ahmed. All Mauritania needed was one goal to force extra time, but Saad Bgui's 84th-minute goal sent Mauritania out.

Though it failed to reach either tournament, Mauritania had the pieces it needed to emerge into relevancy. Most importantly, Mauritania had the manager to do so as it would face Botswana, Angola, and Burkina Faso during the qualification phase of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

Our goal now is to experience more moments like that. But, for that to happen, we have to stop dreaming about that game. We need to continue progressing. What's important is for that win to give our players confidence.

— Corentin Martins, referring to Mauritania's 3-1 victory over South Africa

2017 Africa Cup of Nations Qualification Phase Group M

 
W
D
L
Points
Cameroon
4
2
9
14
Mauritania
2
2
2
8
South Africa
1
4
1
7
Gambia
0
2
4
2
Cameroon qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Mauritania finished as the eighth-best runner-up and did not qualify.

The Road to Egypt

Mauritania began qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with a 1-0 road victory in Francistown. The match against Botswana remained scoreless for over 75 minutes until Mohamed Abdellahi Soudani Dicko scored his first goal for the country. This match occurred on June 10, 2017. A month later, three significant events unfolded for Mauritania. On July 6, 2017, Mauritania reached the top 100 of the FIFA Ranking for the first time, moving up 23 spots at 81st. Two days later, the nation recorded a notable 2-1 upset over Senegal in a friendly played in Nouakchott.

On July 20, 2017, the Confederation of African Football not only expanded the tournament from 16 to 24 nations but also moved the tournament from January to June-July. This change pushed the qualifiers back later. So in essence, Mauritania did not play its next qualifier until September 2018.

However, this did not mean Mauritania would rest on its laurels. Mauritania followed up its road victory in Botswana will two additional key road victories. On July 16, 2017, in Monrovia, goals from Mohamed Yali Dellahi and Boubacar Bagili proved crucial in Mauritania knocking out Liberia. A month later, Mauritania pulled off another scalp. This time, it was Abdoulaye Sileye Gaye, whose lone goal in Bamako on Aug. 19, 2017, would be enough for Mauritania to qualify for the 2018 African Nations Championship.

However, just as in 2014, Mauritania exited the group stage without a single point. This time, however, Mauritania exited without even a goal, with the nation having kicked off the tournament with a 4-0 loss to the hosts and eventual winners Morocco. Following this tournament, Mauritania managed to focus on the big picture. Nearly 15 months after that victory in Botswana, Mauritania pulled off another notable result - a 2-0 upset against Burkina Faso, with Ismaёl Diakete and Khassa Camara scoring with two minutes of each other.

Mauritania even took the lead against Angola in the next qualifier, with Moctar Sidi El Hacen scoring in the opening two minutes in Luanda. However, Mauritania stumbled and lost 4-1 on Oct. 12, 2018. However, Mauritania would not let it happen again five days later in the return leg in Nouakchott. Adama Ba's goal 17 minutes into the game put Mauritania on the precipice ahead of a home match against Botswana.

It was on Nov. 18, 2018, where Diakete helped Mauritania create history. After trailing on a fourth-minute goal from Keeagile Kobe's goal, Mauritania tied the match with Diakete scoring in the 20th minute. The 1-1 draw remained so until Diakete scored his second of the game as the unthinkable happened.

Nearly six years after being ranked 206th in the FIFA Rankings, Mauritania completed an improbable journey and qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

An Epic Upset in 2018

Qualification Assured

2019 Africa Cup of Nations Qualification Phase Group I

 
W
D
L
Points
Angola
4
0
2
12
Mauritania
4
0
2
12
Burkina Faso
3
1
2
10
Botswana
0
1
5
1
Angola and Mauritania qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Angola (+2) finished ahead of Mauritania (-2) on head-to-head goal difference, with Angola winning 4-1 on Oct. 12, 2018 and Mauritania winning 1-0 on Oct. 16, 2018.

Bravery in Suez and the Future

Though it lost in Ouagadougou in its final qualifier in Burkina Faso, Mauritania was preparing for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Many players have now achieved successes abroad as well as for the national team. Ahmed and Diakite, having combined for 91 caps ahead of the tournament, both played club football in Tunisia, whereas the captain Abdoul Ba played for Auxerre in France's Ligue 2. New faces even made the 23-man squad. One of those people was Souleymane Anne, a forward who had only one cap and played football in France's fifth division with FC Aurillac Arpajon.

Mauritania's lone notable result before the Africa Cup of Nations came in a 3-1 victory against Madagascar in Marrakech, Morocco. During its three games in Suez, Egypt, at the Africa Cup of Nations, El Hacen made history to become Mauritania's first goalscorer. However, it came during its opening 4-1 loss to Mali, and El Hacen would score the team's only goal. Despite spirited performances against Angola and Tunisia with scoreless draws, it would not be enough for Mauritania to advance out of the group stage.

However, getting to the tournament was in it of itself a unique event given where Mauritania was in late 2012. Now, Mauritania's future has become more optimistic than ever. The nation emerged from the wilderness and aims to roar into history yet again.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Antonio Martinez

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