Earlier this year, Mauritania played in their first-ever continental finals at the African Nations Championship in South Africa. And although the tournament, in which teams exclusively use players based domestically, is not as prestigious as the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, it has left the supporters in the Maghreb nation wanting more. And results since their continental debut have been promising. A 1-1 draw against Niger in a friendly was followed by two wins against Mauritius in the preliminary round of the 2015 AFCON qualifiers – the first Mauritanian victory in the showpiece event of African football since October 2007, when they beat Burundi.

With results going their way, Mauritania have also climbed up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and in the May rankings the team was 41st in Africa and 139th in the world – up 13 places from the previous month and their highest ranking since June 2008. The country's football federation undertook an important step towards becoming competitive at the start of 2012, when they employed Patrice Neveu as national team coach, and the Frenchman has overseen the steady improvement in Mauritania's football fortune.

The experienced coach, who previously was in charge of Guinea, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has managed to find the right mix of players playing professional football in France – like Bastia's Adama Ba and Diallo Guidileye of Brest – and inexperienced but hungry youngsters playing lower league football. One of the latter is Ahmed Ahmedou, who plays his club football for the youth side of Three Bridges FC, who campaign in the seventh tier of English football. Unlike some of his team-mates who were born in France of Mauritanian parents, the defender was born in Mauritania before moving to France where he played in the St Etienne youth team. “But my parents wanted me to study, so I came to England and started studying engineering at Sussex University,”

Dedicated to the cause
Ahmedou told FIFA.com that finding the right balance between being a full-time student and playing football – both domestically and internationally – has not always easy, but that he is driven to succeed. “It was difficult at the beginning, but I have to do it. All I can do is study and train. I dedicate all my time to that. I study in the morning and afternoon, and at nights I train. I try to get my work done before the weekend so that away games aren’t affected by my work schedule.”

He said that if he had to chose between football and engineering, it would not be a difficult choice to make. “I would definitely take football, but my family want me to study and get a degree. In less than one and a half years, I’ll be graduating and then I can free up my time for football.”

Ahmedou was first approached by Mauritanian officials shortly after Neveu took over. “I was then invited to join the team for the two friendly matches last year against Canada. I was really excited. I was proud to be called up for my national side.” Although he was an unused substitute during those matches, he did not have to wait too long before earning his first cap. The 20-year-old came on as a substitute in the friendly against Niger. “It was an amazing experience to play at home on your home soil for the national team at only 20 years old. The stadium was full, and I couldn’t be happier. My whole family came to watch the game. My father, who doesn’t live in Mauritania came to watch it too.”

Looking toward the future
Ahmedou is confident that football in his country has a bright future. “We built a new football federation from scratch, with a new president who made everything happen. He hand picked the coach and invested a lot of time, money and effort into the sport. Now that we have had some good results, the president of Mauritania has gotten behind us even more. We have a young squad with good players and a great coach. The fans really are behind us and that helps us a lot.”

Having advanced to the first round of the qualifiers for the 2015 AFCON, the side is now hoping to go further, but Ahmedou knows it will be a tough road to travel. The Mourabitounes are facing Equatorial Guinea in the first leg this weekend, with the second leg a fortnight later. “It’s going to be a really hard game. It’s a quality squad that lost to Spain by only 2-1. But we will do everything to go through. We have the quality.”

If the western North African country manage to get past the Nzalang Nacional, they will continue climbing up the FIFA rankings, edging ever-closer to the top 100 and their best-ever ranking of 85 they reached at the end of 1995.