With two matches left to go in the qualification campaign for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon, Mauritania find themselves in an unlikely spot: with a chance of qualifying for the showpiece event of African football. Even more impressive is that the country of four million people have done it in a Group M against Cameroon, South Africa and Gambia, with the former two significantly higher in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking than Les Mourabitounes.
Remarkably, after four matches, the team from the Maghreb Region in the northwest corner of the continent are just one point behind table-topping Cameroon, but more importantly four ahead of South Africa, with Gambia a further point behind. The man widely credited with the upturn in Mauritanian fortunes is former France international and long-time player Corentin Martins, who spoke to FIFA.com recently about the country's unprecedented success and whether their dreams can come true.
Having previously coached the then-named Quimper Cornouaille Football Club, a low-tier team in the French league system, and having had a stint as caretaker coach of Brest, the 46-year-old was thrown into the deep end of African football in October 2014 when he took over Mauritania – a team that has only ever played a bit-part on the continent.
Despite a 1-0 loss at Cameroon to start their qualifying campaign, it was clear that the team might be a side to be reckoned with as the Indomitable Lions needed a last-gasp goal by Vincent Aboubakar to secure the three points. Martins looked back at the late defeat and lost points philosophically.
“Those things generally balance themselves out," he said. "We have to be honest and admit that we were not very dangerous throughout the game and victory for the Lions was the logical consequence.
"But at the end of March, we scored the winner against Gambia [2-1] in injury-time. If I have any regrets, it is about the return game in Gambia where we had opportunities to win but did not take them and we drew 0-0.”
Following up on the good performance in Cameroon, Martins says the second qualifier – a 3-1 win against South Africa in September of last year – was the real lightning bolt for the team. "We scored two goals in the last 15 minutes after conceding an equaliser," Martins explained. "That was the game when things changed, and we take this as a reference point.”
The big one approaching
With just the group winners guaranteed a place at the finals, Martins' side are determined to push for the top spot and they have the matter in their own hands up against Cameroon at home in early June. And Martins believes that the country is fully focused on the match.
“There is huge anticipation," he said. "Supporters are talking about the game, and they know that a victory would allow us to take first place before the difficult trip to South Africa in early September. But of course we know it will be very difficult as Cameroon are a great team with many individual stars.”
For his part, Martins, who featured at UEFA EURO 1996 but whose international caps were curtailed as he competed for a place in Les Bleus' midfield with the legendary Zinedine Zidane, admits that he has high hopes still. “[Qualifying] is in my mind, of course," Martins said. "Already, we did not think that we would have as many points after four matches as we have. Cameroon and South Africa were logically considered as the two favourites.”
Recent success has not come easy for the Mauritanians, who have embarked on a process of improving football throughout the country. An upturn in results were seen when the team, then still coached by Patrice Neveu, qualified for a continental event for the first time at the 2014 CAF African Nations Championship. The tournament for only domestic-based players was a good sign-post of their development as most of their recent success has come using local players.
Arguably the most famous Mauritanian footballer, Adama Ba, said earlier this year that he does not want to be considered for national duty as he wants to concentrate on his career with Auxerre. Martins said the team will make do without him and is open to diaspora players that can benefit his side: “We do not have a long list of bi-national players, and some of have thrown in their lot with the French, which is not an illogical step. But for my part, I continue to look for players who might join us. This is part of my duties.”