Big-mover Mauritania looking forward to first finals

When FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter visited Mauritania in February this year, the President of the country's football association (FFRIM), Ahmed Ould Yahya, said that they wanted to build on solid foundations. "Our national academy will make it possible to produce great players in the future," Yahya said. "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."

Just over six months later, Yahya has witnessed at least a part of his wish come true. A 2-1 aggregate victory against Senegal has seen the Mourabitounes sensationally qualify for the finals of the 2014 African Nations Championship in South Africa, and although the tournament, in which teams exclusively use players from the local league, is not quite as prestigious as the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, it is Mauritania's first-ever qualification for a continental competition.

Yahya's second goal - that of breaking back into the top 100 - also seems to be on course as the team has climbed 21 places in the rankings in August. Currently they are now 40th in Africa and 151st in the world, which is still a long way to go before they return to their highest ranking of 85th in December 1995, but they are definitely heading in the right direction.

Football in Mauritania has benefited greatly from two FIFA initiatives, namely the PERFORMANCE programme and the Goal programme. When President Blatter was in the capital city Nouakchott earlier this year, 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, were inaugurated. These initiatives were financed by the Goal programme. FIFA's new PERFORMANCE programme, which involves FIFA providing expert support in a wide range of fields, including governance, management, finance, communication, marketing and information technology, has also had an impact on football in the Arab Maghreb country in west Africa.

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 Yahya during President Blatter's visit. "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."

Influential support
It is, of course, not only football's organising body that has thrown its weight behind developing the game in Mauritania. In President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, football has an important supporter, who has taken an active role in ensuring that the national team becomes stronger. Some two months after taking over as national team coach in February 2012, Patrice Neveu had a meeting with the head of state. The Frenchman told journalists after the side's victory against Senegal in July that he had been asked by the President if there was potential to build something, adding that the politician said that he knew it would be difficult to secure victories. "But he also asked me if I could revive Mauritanian football."

The experienced coach, who previously was in charge of Guinea, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has obviously managed to do just that, first taking the team past Liberia in the CHAN preliminary rounds before taking on Senegal in the first round. After losing the first leg game in Dakar 1-0, a near capacity crowd, including Aziz and several other cabinet members, packed the Stade Olympique in Nouakchott for the return leg. Moulaye 'Bessam' Ahmed made the aggregate score 1-1 in first-half injury time before midfielder Taghyoullah Denne found the much-celebrated winner on the hour mark. The result prompted Neveu to remark: "I think I can say modestly that, yes, my mission is accomplished."

Ironically, the national teams' success also has a downside to it as several of the players involved in the CHAN qualifying campaign have been targeted by clubs from other countries, which could see them become ineligible to play in the CHAN finals in South Africa early next year. Neveu has tried to stem the flow. "I'm explaining the situation to them by telling them not to be hasty." He also said that he knew the hardest part of the development goal was still to come.

After the historic victory against Senegal, Aziz held a meeting with the players, technical staff and association officials. This meeting came after an earlier one with only officials at which he promised support if the team's ranking improves. Following the victory against Senegal, the president promised the team all the resources necessary to keep Mauritania's flag flying high at the finals. With support such as that, it could well be that the team moves even closer to Yahya's goal of seeing Mauritania back in the top 100 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.