While much of the football world remains transfixed by events in South Africa, where the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations is approaching its climax, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter has just begun a six-day working visit to the continent, kicking off his trip in Mauritania.
Far from the fanfare of African football's most prestigious competition, and more than two years on from the first FIFA World Cup™ on African soil, the FIFA President has again been turning his attention to development programmes in the world's least developed nations.
Those development projects may often go unnoticed, but they lie at the very heart of FIFA's mission and have largely been made possible by the success of South Africa 2010.
"When we decided to hold the World Cup in Africa, we encountered objections from a lot of people who said it would be a failure," explained Blatter during his visit. "Instead, South Africa 2010 was an unprecedented success and that allowed us, for the first time, to pay out a bonus to all the member associations."
Changing the image of the game
In Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, the President of world football's governing body was above all able to witness the impact of FIFA's new PERFORMANCE programme. A management initiative designed to help member associations reach their maximum potential, the PERFORMANCE programme involves FIFA providing expert support in a wide range of fields, including governance, management, finance, communication, marketing and information technology.
The main focus in Mauritania has been on communication, and in particular audiovisual production. "We now have a TV production unit, one of the first of its kind in Africa," explained the President of the Mauritanian Football Association (FFRIM), Ahmed Ould Yahya. "We've signed a contract with the national broadcasting company and we show matches every week. That's increased the visibility of football and is really changing the image of the game in the country."
Blatter's visit provided an excellent chance to put the FFRIM's facilities to the test, and the FIFA President agreed to be interviewed in their new studio by the presenter of the national news bulletin. During the interview, Blatter underlined the importance of women's football to FIFA.
Meanwhile, FIFA's PERFORMANCE programme consultant, Diamil Faye, was able to explain how he adapts his methods to the specific circumstances of each country. In Mauritania, for example, attention must be paid to the fact that prayers are held during half-time breaks, while accreditation has to be arranged for the official tea distributor.
It is in countries like Mauritania that FIFA's development efforts are most keenly felt, the majority of the country's major football projects in the last few years having been largely funded by the sport's governing body. Indeed, Blatter's visit was also the perfect occasion to inaugurate the new extension of the FFRIM's headquarters and the association's technical centre as well as two artificial pitches, including the pitch at the national Olympic Stadium.
During a difficult period for the country – the national team did not enter qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations or Brazil 2014 – these initiatives, financed by the Goal programme, could hardly be more opportune, with the accent placed firmly on youth training and supervision.
"We want to build on solid foundations," commented FFRIM President Yahya. "Our national academy will make it possible to produce great players in the future. Our goal is for Mauritania to break back into the top 100 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and qualify for a major tournament such as the Africa Cup of Nations." Encouragingly, early signs of progress were evident when the national side recently overcame Liberia in the CAF African Nations Championship.
There was time too for the FIFA President to meet with the Prime Minister of Mauritania, Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf, and the country's Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, Cisse Mint Cheikh Ould Boide. After their discussions, Blatter expressed his delight that the Mauritanian government is set to devote a percentage of the national budget to the construction of sporting infrastructure.
"In a troubled world – Mauritania is currently home to 100,000 Malian refugees – it is important to emphasise football's social role," he said. "We're not going to change the world but we can prepare a better future for young people, especially in a country as young as Mauritania."