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Mauritania’s journey from bottom of world rankings to knockout stages of AFCON

“We are not here to distribute points, we are here to do our best and we will do everything possible to be at the right level.”

Mauritania’s head coach Amir Abdou issued a warning to Algeria ahead of their group stage match on Tuesday evening, but nobody paid much attention.

This is only the third time Mauritania have qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations and they had never won a game before. Two years ago in Cameroon, they finished bottom of their group after losing all of their games and failing to score a single goal.

Algeria did not reach the knockout stages of that tournament either, but they were champions in 2019. Djamel Belmadi’s squad for this edition included former Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, Real Betis playmaker Nabil Fekir and Roma midfielder Houssem Aouar.

Group favourites Algeria were in a precarious position following draws with Burkina Faso and Angola. They knew a point against Mauritania, one of the lowest-ranked sides (105), would probably be enough to progress to the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed teams.

When the referee blew the full-time whistle at the Stade De La Paix, Mauritania’s players and coaching staff ran around celebrating wildly while Algeria sank to their knees in disbelief. Mohammed Dellahi’s 37th-minute strike means Mauritania will face Cape Verde on Monday evening for a place in the quarter-finals. Algeria were eliminated. Belmadi lost his job.

“It is extraordinary what we are feeling and what we are going through,” Abdou said. “The players had a historic game. I told them today that they need to write their names in the history books of Mauritanian football and they have done that.”

This is the story of how Mauritania went from the bottom of FIFA’s world rankings to the knockout stages of a major international tournament in 12 years.

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Mauritania is located on the west coast of Africa, surrounded by Morocco, Senegal and Mali. It is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960 and has a population of around 4.6million. The two main languages people speak are French and Arabic.

A large portion of the country is covered by desert and it is impacted by severe droughts. Due to the difficult conditions, Mauritania imports around 70 per cent of its food. The land is rich in natural resources including gold, iron and oil.

Between 1995 and 2003, their football team failed to win a single match. They regularly had to withdraw from the qualifying process for the World Cup and AFCON due to a lack of funding. At one stage, they were 206th in FIFA’s world rankings.

Ahmed Yaya was elected as the head of their football federation (FFRIM) in 2011. Yaya aimed to upgrade infrastructure and in 2016 FIFA launched a programme which invests money generated by the World Cup into different development projects.

According to FIFA’s website, the programme aims to “support football across the globe so that it can reach its potential in every single country and everyone who wants to take part can do so without barriers.” During the last eight years, $2.8billion (£2.20bn) has been made available for over 1,600 projects.

A few years ago, the Cheikha Boidiya Stadium — which is located in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott and originally opened in 1969 — was in a state of disrepair. Yaya applied for funding from FIFA’s scheme to renovate the facilities and increase the capacity to 8,200.

In total, FIFA has provided FFRIM with $11.1million (£8.72m) which has been spent on renovating their headquarters, building a new medical centre, installing three synthetic pitches and setting up a youth academy in Nouadhibou. The women’s side was established and played their first match in July 2019 against Djibouti. FFRIM have received funding from the government too. When FIFA president Gianni Infantino visited Mauritania in February 2021, while they were hosting the Under-20 AFCON, he praised FFRIM for their “thoughtful investments”.

Yaya, who is a vice president and executive committee member at the Confederation of African Football (CAF), has built up a stable structure. He encouraged businesses including Mauritel, the country’s biggest telecommunications company, to invest in the domestic league to improve its quality. The number of teams were increased and clubs were required to have at least eight players on a salary and pay technical staff.

Mauritania competed at their first tournament in 2014 when they qualified for the African Nations Championship, where squads only consist of players from domestic leagues. They finished bottom of their group, but it was all valuable experience. Under French head coach Corentin Martins, they reached AFCON for the first time in 2019. They drew with Angola and Tunisia, but lost 4-1 to Mali.

Mauritania lost their first two games at this tournament to Burkina Faso and Angola. But it should not be a surprise that they have achieved this historic feat. Anything should be considered to be possible under Abdou.

He has a habit of creating history in this competition.

He was appointed as Mauritania’s head coach in March 2022, a couple of months after he guided Comoros to their first-ever appearance at AFCON. At the 2022 edition of the tournament — called AFCON 2021 — Comoros beat Ghana 3-2 in their final group stage fixture to qualify for the knockout stages. They were eliminated by eventual semi-finalists Cameroon.

Abdou being lifted up on a staff member’s shoulders (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Abdou’s Mauritania squad is made up of 27 players from 21 clubs in 14 different leagues. The most famous member of their team is Aboubakar Kamara who made over 80 appearances for Fulham between 2017 and 2021. Kamara has big game experience — he started the 2018 Championship play-off final when Fulham beat Aston Villa 1-0 to get promoted to the Premier League.

Mauritania’s hero on Tuesday night though was Dellahi, who plays for the Iraqi top-flight team Al-Hudood.

“We suffered,” Abdou said. “We knew that this team had great individual quality. We were solid. We scored and we fought, we showed great desire, and I’m very proud, very proud of what we did.”

To continue their heroic journey they need to beat the competition’s other surprise package — Cape Verde. Cape Verde are the tournament’s third-highest scorers, with seven goals over their Group B rivals. They topped that group too, finishing ahead of Egypt in second and Ghana, who are traditionally one of the AFCON’s strongest teams.

But Mauritania might be built to beat a team designed to score goals. They only had 25 per cent possession in their 1-0 victory over Algeria but were difficult to break down.

Not that the media around the tournament had been paying much attention to them before the match. Abdou told French outlet Canal+ after the game: “Already, when you watch Canal+ yesterday there is not a summary of us, not our (style of play). Of course, it inspires us. When I saw that you weren’t thinking about Mauritania, we believed in it. Football is full of surprises.”

A repeat performance might benefit them against Cape Verde — and then another landmark could follow. If you have been paying attention to their journey over the last decade, you would not be surprised if they pulled it off.

(Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

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