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

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

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.

Hope exists for any country looking to garner respect, and all that is needed is one shining event to make the journey worthwhile. In a region where football is the primary sport, one nation sought to embark on a chapter in its footballing history. For nearly half a century, Mauritania struggled for recognition and even sunk as low as a country could be.

Games were challenging to come, and the former French colony sunk to a nadir. However, a glorious moment happened when Mauritania began playing, with the activity coming since 2015. The west African nation started competing and began winning. First, the journey started with more local support involved, and then the unthinkable happened.

Mauritania, a nation that did not secure its first victory almost 17 years after independence, qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Not bad for a country that once amassed only three 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. For nearly two decades, futility became a theme in Mauritania. During its first 17 years, Mauritania failed to win a game, while suffering 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 at the international level. That came during a regional tournament for West African nations called the Amilcar Cup as Mauritania won its first continental qualifying match. Yet, the 2-1 victory failed to save Mauritania from elimination during qualifying for the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations.

After finishing fourth in the Amilcar Cup in 1983 on home soil, 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.

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.

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.

Dried Up Again For Nearly A Decade

Following the 1995 Amilcar Cup, Mauritania returned to World Cup qualifying after a two-decade absence. Their first qualification campaign ended at home on Mar. 28, 1976, with a 2-0 defeat to Upper Volta (present-day Burkina Faso). On May 31, 1996, hosts Mauritania held Burkina Faso to a scoreless draw in what represented the first of 91 World Cup qualifiers in Africa. Nearly three weeks, Burkina Faso sent Mauritania out of the tournament with a 2-0 result. Burkina Faso was hosts of the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations; for Mauritania to get there, they would have to first get past Benin. However, a 4-1 loss, made possible courtesy of a Leon Bassan hat trick, proved too much for Mauritania to overcome.

For the next six years, Mauritania struggled on the international scene. These struggles included its three losses at 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 the Gambia denying Mauritania a knockout berth.

However, the second of the two draws, a 2-2 result against Cape Verde Islands on Dec. 2, 1997, would be Mauritania's last game until just over 27 months later. Following a pair of draws against the Gambia, Mauritania commenced 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 secured two other 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

 WDLPTS

Egypt

3

3

0

12

Mauritania

2

1

3

7

Burundi

2

1

3

7

Botswana

2

1

3

7

Sinking into the Abyss

During qualifying 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 - a 3-0 loss to the Cape Verde Islands, where the referee abandoned 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. 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 managed 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 its 2008 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying with a resounding shutout against Botswana on Sept. 2, 2006. That match saw Mauritania score four goals in the game's opening 31 minutes in what proved to be a significant highlight of Mauritania's campaign. Road miseries cost Mauritania as it suffered losses in Egypt, Burundi, and Botswana; despite finishing in second, Mauritania failed to snatch one of the three best runners-up spots to qualify.

Between 2006 and 2007, Mauritania provided a glimmer of hope. The nation had achieved what remains its most significant margin of 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 (also doubled 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.

Mauritania engaged in one game between 2009 and 2011 - a scoreless draw against Palestine in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2010. Once again, Mauritania struggled on the international scene. The nation's most notable loss came during the 2012 Palestine International Cup - a 3-1 loss to Iraqi Kurdistan, a non-FIFA member. Despite two victories against Liberia late in 2012, Mauritania was still in the void. In November 2012, Mauritania would be the fourth-lowest ranked nation in the FIFA Rankings.

How Low Can You Go?

RankingNationPoints

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

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.

French Influence Achieves Major Strides

Those two victories over Liberia may not count as FIFA internationals. Still, Mauritania was chasing history as the matches served as qualification matches for a tournament dedicated to domestic-based players. Mauritania's manager was Patrice Neveu, a manager whose experience included guiding Guinea to the quarterfinals of the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations. On July 20, 2013, Mauritania pulled off a notable achievement when it overturned a 1-0 first-leg loss to knock out Senegal.

With a 2-0 victory, Mauritania qualified for the 2014 African Nations Championship. 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 foray at the 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 became first of 101 qualifiers contested over six months 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. Equatorial Guinea knocked Mauritania out with a 3-0 victory on June 1, 2014, but Mauritania came back after Thierry Fidjeu, who was supposed to have been ruled ineligible, played in that qualifier.

Mauritania hoped to continue the trend, but losses to Uganda ended Neveu's tenure. Following that elimination, 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 that plays their football in France's fourth division. Martins had three stints as a caretaker for Brest, where he guided the club to safety 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 to keep 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.

Meaning Business

Mauritania was seeded in Pot 4 ahead of the qualification phase for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Mauritania would face Cameroon, South Africa, and the Gambia during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying. For the 44th-ranked African nation, Mauritania hoped to achieve results against Cameroon, the lowest-ranked team out of Pot 1, and South Africa, 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 a historic draw until Vincent Aboubakar scored an 89th-minute goal to deny Mauritania the result. However, three months later, Mauritania achieved its most significant result at Nouakchott's Stade Olympique.

Mauritania would be up 1-0 after only five minutes, with Yacoub Aly Abeid scored his second goal for his country. 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, Moulaye Ahmed's two goals against the Gambia, including an injury-time goal, had Mauritania in contention for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. However, five days after winning 2-1, Mauritania suffered a stunning result with 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. Mauritania failed to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but did finished ahead of South Africa after drawing 1-1 with its opponent in Nelspruit.

Following its 3-1 victory over South Africa, Mauritania began its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, easing past South Sudan. 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. Mauritania needed 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 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

 WDLPoints

Cameroon

4

2

9

14

Mauritania

2

2

2

8

South Africa

1

4

1

7

Gambia

0

2

4

2

The Road to Egypt

Mauritania began qualifying with a 1-0 road victory in Francistown. The match remained scoreless for over 75 minutes until Mohamed Abdellahi Soudani Dicko scored his initial 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 expanded the competition from 16 to 24 nations and moved the tournament to June-July. This change pushed the qualifiers back later, meaning Mauritania's next qualifier came in September 2018.

Mauritania followed up its victory in Botswana with two additional vital wins. On July 16, 2017, in Monrovia, goals from Mohamed Yali Dellahi and Boubacar Bagili proved crucial as Mauritania eliminated 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 solitary point and a goal, having begun with losing the tournament's opening game 4-0 to the hosts and eventual winners Morocco. Following this tournament, Mauritania managed to focus on the formal picture. Nearly 15 months after winning 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 following qualifier, with Moctar Sidi El Hacen scoring in the opening two minutes in Luanda. However, Mauritania stumbled and promptly lost 4-1 on Oct. 12, 2018. However, Mauritania would not authorize it to 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 produce 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

 WDLPoints

Angola

4

0

2

12

Mauritania

4

0

2

12

Burkina Faso

3

1

2

10

Botswana

0

1

5

1

A Tough First Trip

Despite losing its final continental qualifier, Mauritania would be 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, including 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.

Getting to the tournament was in it of itself a unique event given where Mauritania was in late 2012. In the months following the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Mauritania missed out on a second straight African Nations Championship, losing to Mali in its second leg. However, Mauritania began its quest for a second consecutive Africa Cup of Nations with a scoreless draw in Rabat against Morocco. A 2-0 victory against the Central African Republic has Mauritania in position for another top-two finish and an automatic berth to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

Now, with recent successes to end 2019, Mauritania's future has become more optimistic than ever. With its 2022 World Cup qualifying slated to begin later in 2020, Mauritania hopes to emerge and aim to roar into history.

© 2019 Antonio Martinez

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