The shockwaves spread far and wide last month when Mauritania pulled off a genuine coup during qualifying for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. The side nicknamed Les Mourabitounes turned heads with a 3-1 victory against South Africa, beating one of the continent's traditional giants to keep up the pressure on Cameroon in Group M. For their coach, Corentin Martins, it was a result fully in keeping with his reputation.
Capped 14 times by France, Martins spent the entirety of his playing career trying to help France's less vaunted sides upset more illustrious clubs. He had an impressive knack for it too, playing his part in Auxerre's famous league and cup double in 1996, either side of Coupe de France wins with Auxerre in 1994 and Strasbourg in 2001. "It's true that I enjoy the role of the little guy who wants to beat the giant," the 5'7" former midfielder told FIFA.com. "It's a position that suits me. And I'm in the same situation with Mauritania. We're never favourites – we can only ever cause a surprise."
As surprises go, the victory against Bafana Bafana was certainly a memorable one, and it unleashed genuine excitement throughout Mauritania. "It was an important win," reflected Martins. "South Africa are one of Africa's biggest teams. It was a huge joy and an immense source of pride for every Mauritanian, and for all the players and staff, to record a victory against a team of their calibre. 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."
That looks to be the case so far, with Mauritania claiming an encouraging draw against South Sudan on Thursday in a qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. "What I like about my team is that they have real potential to improve," explained Martins. "They're capable of doing even better, and they're a team that's willing to listen. The players are happy when they're together and they enjoy themselves."
Much as Martins did during his own playing days, in fact. Technically gifted, the Brittany native seemed to enjoy every second of his 17-year career, and he also passed that enjoyment on to others. Little surprise, then, that he has maintained the same outlook in his role as a coach. "That's what influences all my decisions," he said. "I'm only in charge of this team because I enjoy it. And I chose to become a coach above all because of the joy that comes with seeing your team play the football you want."
'Team ethic and character'
So far, that appears to be a recipe for success. Martins has held the Mauritania reins for a year now and his side have jumped 48 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking during that time, leaving them just two shy of their highest ever position – 85th, which they reached in 1995. "Climbing up that ranking and qualifying for the 2016 African Nations Championship are among my major goals," commented the former Brest coach, whose hopes reside in an experienced set of players based in France, Algeria and Morocco, as well as promising local talents such as Aly Abeid and Boubacar Bagili.
"More than a collection of individuals, what gives us strength is our team ethic and character," he added. "You have to give 200 per cent every time you go out on the pitch – 100 per cent isn't enough. We have very little room for manoeuvre, so to win matches it's indispensable to be at our best. As for me, I try to make good use of my experience, and I try to make my presence felt as much as I can during games. We're not Argentina or Germany, so there are always quite a few things to rectify. I want my players to be able to feel my presence on the sidelines. I think that's important."
Given his background in the game, it is easy to imagine Martins having a powerful influence. Not only is he well versed in humbling bigger teams, he was a member of the France squad that reached the semi-finals of EURO '96, but the 46-year-old prefers not to dwell on past achievements. "It's not so much what I did yesterday as a player that counts but what I'm capable of doing today as a coach," he said. "In fact, as the years go by, the youngsters I coach don't know about my past as a player, or they know very little about it. And a coach earns respect not because of who he is but because of his ability to foresee problems. That's the only way a coach can prove his credibility."