How Mauritania went from lowly-ranked minnows to smashing Algeria and making maiden AFCON knockouts

FOOTBALL How Mauritania went from lowly-ranked minnows to smashing Algeria and making maiden AFCON knockouts

Mark Kinyanjui 17:23 - 24.01.2024

Mauritania dumped Algeria against all odds to reach their first ever AFCON round of 16 on Wednesday night, but it was a victory 13 years in the making.

On Wednesday evening, Mauritania made history by winning their first-ever Africa Cup of Nations match against 2019 hosts Algeria, effectively sending them packing as they finished rock-bottom of group D.

Mauritania have now advanced to the round of 16 of the ongoing tournament ahead of more reputable teams, such as Ghana.

All the odds favored Algeria to pick their first win at the tournament but Mauritania came to the party, sending their North African opponents packing. 

Many will see it as a huge shock. I mean, how can a team that boasts names such as Riyard Mahrez, Baghdad Bounedjah, Ismael Bennacer and Ramy Bensebaini, all proven global superstars, be knocked out by Mauritius?

However, those with a keener eye will know that the building blocks that led to Mauritius making such history were created 15 years in the making.

From 1995-2003, the country had never won a single football match and the whole country had practically given up interest in football.

So dire was their situation that In 2010, they had to withdraw from the AFCON qualifiers due to the financial crisis that had engulfed their football.

By 2011, they were ranked 207th by FIFA, making them practically the poorest football country in the world. 

However, they were about to start enjoying a meteoric rise after the country’s federation voted Ahmed Yahya as the new boss, and it would be a move that proved pivotal to changing their football spectrum for the better.

Yahya’s biggest emphasis was advocating for youth football development by setting up a youth league, making sure that league clubs each came up with underage teams that could participate in the competition.

He also managed the country’s biggest telephone network  to sponsor the top flight league,  the Super D 1, which helped relieve the club's financial burdens as it meant players’ salaries were now sorted out.

By 2014, they would have won their first away game in history by beating Liberia during an African Nations Championship qualifier match.

In 2015, they used the €10m (Ksh 202 million)  FIFA Goal Project fund allocated to them to renovate their national stadium and also build an ultra-modern headquarter.

They also built a training Complex with hotel rooms and TV/Radio studio, drawing inspiration from the famous French Football facility, Clairefontaine.

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They would use the complex to start a youth development programme, while camping their first assembled U-15 side in the complex.

On his tour of Africa, FIFA president Gianni Infantino praised Mauritania as one of the few African countries with proper accountability of the FIFA funds. 

Even Chelsea legend Didier Drogba was impressed by what he had seen of the country’s football development on his visit there in 2017. 

“I am really happy to have done it because today I saw things we rarely see in Africa,” the iconic former forward said. 

“A real center, a real federation with a president that has a clear vision for Mauritius football . 

“It will set a good example for all the young players coming through and it will help ensure football in Africa is raised and ensure that its dignity is raised where it should be.”

In 2019, they qualified for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations tournament, and unsurprisingly, did not do very well considering it was their first ever time in the competition, but that was to lay foundations for them becoming a mainstay at the tournament.

They would qualify for yet another tournament in 2021, including some of the players they emphasized on developing from the youth team in 2015, and again, they qualified for the current tournament in Ivory Coast.

As Mauritania prepare to cause more upsets in a monumental round of 16 tie, they will be hoping they can reap the rewards for their hard-earned labor.