Just over three months ago, FIFA.com gave pride of place to four African nations marching purposefully up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking . Since then, Eritrea (139th), Gambia (135th) and Tanzania (109th) have all found it difficult to push on to the next level, but Mauritania continue to confound observers with their audacious capacity to hit new heights.
At the time, the west Africans had amassed 127 points and climbed 42 places, and they made further impressive gains in January's edition . Based on their performances in a mere three matches last month, Mauritania boosted their total by another 38 points (202 altogether) and jumped up to 122nd spot overall, making them the 35th-highest ranked team in Africa.
What has been most noticeable about the side's recent string of good results is that they finally look to have made a breakthrough on foreign soil. In the past, the country boasting just over three million inhabitants certainly produced a number of memorable displays, but always struggled to replicate their best form away from the capital, Nouakchott.
Zimbabwe win lights the way
Without a shadow of doubt, the single greatest moment in Mauritanian football history took place in November 2003.
Then, led by Frenchmen and current Congo coach Noel Tosi, who combined his role with that of national sporting director, Mauritania registered a famous 2-1 victory at home to Zimbabwe in a qualifier for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. A few months previously, the former French colony had also managed back-to-back goalless draws with Kenya and Togo.
"Those excellent results acted as a kind of trigger," present coach Moustapha Sall told FIFA.com. "They helped all of us believe in our potential."
The reverberations were most recently felt in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where Mauritania upset predictions once again. In a pre-qualifying tournament for the 2009 Arab Cup of Nations, the Mourabitounes suffered a 2-0 loss to Sudan, but proved their character by holding the hosts to a 0-0 draw before celebrating their biggest ever win, an 8-2 triumph over Somalia.
"With hindsight, those qualifiers leave me with a few regrets," admitted Sall. "When you look at our ranking, you might say we had little hope of leaving Lebanon with a win, a draw and a defeat - the latter being our best display incidentally. But I'm certain there wasn't much stopping us from doing even better. Now we need to build on those performances to make even more progress. We have to keep our feet on the ground and remember where we came from."
'The national team works like a club'
The chances are that Sall and his team will continue their steady rise, thanks in part to the FIFA Goal programme . With a new training centre and artificial pitch in Nouakchott, the Mauritanians appear firmly on the road towards a bright future.
As a former international for the west Africans for almost 15 years, Sall feels his charges enjoy excellent preparation for the big games too. "Most of my team play in foreign leagues, often in France (captain Ahmed Sidibe is at Narbonne and Moise Kande at Orleans, while Yoann Langlet turns out for FC Vaduz in Liechtenstein). They may be in the lower leagues, but they train at least twice a week. As for the others still at home, we've implemented a series of year-round training sessions. As a result, the national team works like a club. We spend Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays together, then for the rest of the week the players return to their clubs."
Naturally, it will take some time before Mauritania can hope to have their way against continental titans Nigeria, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire, but at this rate the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking could soon be welcoming a fresh member into its top 100.