If the expression “third time lucky” is to be relied upon, Mauritanian football may finally be able to look forward to a change in fortunes. The country, ranked 152nd in the world and 42nd on the African continent, have spent the last 11 years trying to incite a revival in the game, marked by two distinct improvements before completing the third with this weekend’s 2015 African Nations’ Cup (ANC) qualifier win over Mauritius.
This is how they have laboured.
In November 1995, Mauritania beat Guinea-Bissau 1-0. After that, they played 36 matches over the next eight yeats and did not win a single one. They languished at 175 on the rankings and many players who could have turned out for them chose not to because of the plethera of problems plaguing the country’s game.
At that point, the football administrators made a bold move. Frenchman Noel Tosi was appointed coach and he was able to persuade two players based in France, Tony Tavarez and Dominique Courville, and one based in the States, Eric Descombs, all of whom had Mauritaniean heritage, to play for the country. The federation gave Tosi some resources and the squad spent five days in Paris preparing for the next challenge, a 2006 World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe.
But when the final whistle was blown in Harare, nothing had changed for Mauritania. They were defeated 3-0 and extending their losing streak even further.
Luckily, that soon changed. In poetic fashion, n the same month they achieved success in 1995, they tasted it again in 2003. Mauritania beat Zimbabwe 2-1 in Nouakchott. It was a small sign that maybe things would improve for the country.
But just as they had got off the starting blocks, they were forced to stand still again. Mauritania had no international fixtures in 2004 or 2005 and returned to action in September 2006 but had not forgotten that winning feeling. They beat Botswana 4-0 on their return. That year, they played four more matches, won another one, beating Somalia 8-2, lost two and drew one.
Then it began spiraling downward again. The following year, they drew twice, lost twice and won just once and in 2008, they lost all six matches they competed in.
It took another three years before the second move was made to try and get Mauritanian football back on track. In 2011, with FIFA’s help, their football federation held its first democractic elections.They also increased the number of teams in the top flight from nine to 14 clubs with the goal to ensure the game was played wider than just the capital, put plans in place to expand the second division, add a third and build an Olympic Stadium complex.
Again, the high was followed by a low. In 2012, under new coach Patrice Nevue, Mauritania lost all their matches at the al-Nakba tournament in Palestine. They defeats were at the hands of Iraq, Kurdistan and Indonesia and forced Nevue to explain whether there was interference in team selection. He denied any wrongdoing and said he had identified ten players based in Europe who could bolster the Mauritanian squad.
FIFA’s continued interest and support saw a new headquarters for the federation unveiled in February last year and a visit by president Sepp Blatter. At that stage, Mauritania had risen 38 places in the rankings and sat at 168. They were focused on qualifying for the African Nations Championship (CHAN) in South Africa -- the continental tournament for only home-based players -- and in July, they did.
They beat Senegal to book spots at a continental event for the first-time where they lost all their group matches. Despite that, it finally looks like things are on the up for Mauritania and they have the scope to develop properly after the gains they have made so far.
Following on from their CHAN participation, Mauritania beat Mauritius, who are now ranked below them, and will play in the second round of the ANC qualifiers. The qualification involves four stages and culminates in a group phase from which the winners, runners-up and best-placed third team advance to the continental showpiece. Nevue is keeping his aims realistic and said it is Mauritania’s goal to advance as far as the group stage.
“We have a country and a team under construction,” he said after their victory. Maybe this time they will be able to build something.