Mauritania’s national football side, known as the ‘Mourabitounes’, has achieved very little success in football.
Indeed before November 14 2003 they went eight years without a win. They regularly underperform in continental tournaments, such as the 2011 African Cup of Nations qualifiers, where the Mourabitounes lost all six of their qualifying matches.
But Mauritania has suffered for many years with plenty of issues outside of football, especially politically, that have divided the nation.
In 1989, violence between the two ethnic groups - Arabs and black Africans - erupted and led to years of tension and turmoil. Many black Africans were forced to deport to neighbouring countries, Senegal and Mali. State-sponsored killings against them were authorised, and tens of thousands were expelled from government and military duty.
These tensions, along with a border war with neighbors Senegal, that occurred between 1989-1990, destabilised the government, causing a number of bloodless coups over the years. This also, obviously, affected the country's football progress, causing several interruptions to its Premier League, which wasn’t held in the years of 1980, 1989, 1996 and 1997.
Mauritania lacks football infrastructure with only three official stadiums: Stade Olympique, the Fire Ould Cheikha Boidiya Stadium, and the Municipal Stadium in Nouadhibou. The main and most used stadium is the Stade Olympique, which can hold a capacity of around 10,000 spectators, and is the only stadium approved by FIFA which uses FIFA-approved synthetic lawn of the third generation.
The lack of infrastructure, and attempts to renovate these stadiums, are not helped by the financial problems and lack of support. Problems also arise because of Mauritania’s climate and terrain, which is dry, making it difficult to build a proper playing surface and pitch.
"The main problem is there is no adequate infrastructure. It’s a huge problem and if we want to develop football, we need proper infrastructure," former national team goalkeeper, Ba Sangare, claimed back in 2009 to Reuters.
Mauritania’s Football Federation (FFRIM), with the help of FIFA, has tried to improve the game in the country by holding its first democratic election for its new president in 2011, won by Ahmed Ould Yahya.
The FA, under the leadership of Yahya, enforced new club requirements to improve the quality and structure of its leagues and divisions, which include the payment of just under $20,000 to have at least eight salaried players insured with signed contracts. They also employ a paid technical staff.
The FFRIM have also opened a new youth centre in Nouadhibou last year that covers 128 square miles, costing over $800,000. They’ve also promised to build a new Olympic Stadium complex - a new 20,000 seater in the capital of Nouakchott and are aiming to upgrade their local pitches nationwide. The top club division, Premier Division, has increased in size from nine to 14 clubs, and efforts are underway to increase the number of clubs in the second division to 16 and add a third division as well.
They also tried to improve the coverage of football in the country, setting up a TV studio and weekly program dedicated to cover football on their state channel - Mauritania TV.
Progress is being made, as Mohamed Samba Veily, one of the country's most respected football journalists explains:
"The country has made great strides in progressing the sport in the country.
"Their aspirations and plans were boosted by the federation's three-year agreement with Mauritel, Mauritania's biggest telephone operator, to become the national league's (LNF) sponsor. Such assistance has benefited the competitive aspect of the league with the monopoly of clubs hailing from the capital of Nouakchott ceasing, countered with the rise of clubs like FC Nouadhibou (who were close to winning last season's title) and Ksar, who are fighting ferociously for this season's league championship."
The FFRIM have also sought to improve its national side by attempting to bring in players plying their trade professionally outside of the country. Players like Eric Descombes, who played professionally in the United States, were persuaded to officially join the Mauritanian national side.
Several others also ply their trade in various countries throughout Europe and also in fellow African countries like stars Yoann Langlet, Senegalese-born Moise Kande and Egyptian-based Dominique Da Silva, who plays for one of the continent’s greatest clubs in Egypt’s Al Ahly.
These improvements have helped the national side climb from 206 to 172 in the latest FIFA rankings in just a few months thanks, largely, to their win in the 2014 CHAN (African Nations Championship) preliminary against Liberia. The first-leg win was their first ever away from home.
Despite these improvements, Mauritania have still struggled with disorganisation and financial trouble within the FFRIM, which forced them to withdraw from the African Cup of Nations 2013 qualifiers (CAF suspended the national side before revoking the ban last June).
But Veily remains optimistic: "I think that Mauritanian football looks to be in a good position to get out of their rut. The Mauritanian Football Federation is working hard to improve the state of the sport beginning with its domestic leagues all the way to its youth sector."
If they keep on moving ahead and building on their improvements and ideas for the sport, then Mauritania might just dispense their reputation as one of "Africa’s weakest nations" and make a name for themselves.
"Africa is currently benefiting from an increase in exposure and funding from international associations and corporates," Goal.com's Peter Pedroncelli explains.
"Meaning that the money being poured into countries will directly benefit young players who will one day represent their countries, and that knock-on effect will hopefully benefit the smaller nations as well as the bigger countries."
Omar Almasri is a football writer/blogger based in Bahrain. He mainly writes about the beautiful sport in the Middle East/North African region, and how it's intertwined with the region's political issues and arena. He's also the owner of a site about everything football, O-Posts (http://www.o-posts.net).
Follow Omar Almasri on Twitter @OAlmasri.
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