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AFCON 2023: Minnows Mauritania looking to suprise

Olaf Jansen
January 15, 2024

Having qualified for their third consecutive Africa Cup of Nations, Mauritania won't be satisfied unless they manage to advance from the group stage.

Mauritania players sing national anthem during a 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier
Like a phoenix out of the ashes, Mauritania have qualified for their third consecutive AFCONImage: Sports Inc./empics/picture alliance

Mauritania's national team was the last of the 24 teams to arrive in Ivory Coast for the 34th Africa Cup of Nations. The players, dressed in traditional national costumes, proudly strode off the Mauritania Airlines plane that had delivered the team to the small airport in Bouake.

The Western Sahara nation that these players hail from is mostly made up of desert and has one of the lowest population densities of any country in the world. Most of Mauritania's almost five million inhabitants live in the south — in or near the capital, Nouakchott.

The fact that this country has qualified for the Africa Cup for a third time running isn't something you could have seen coming a few short years ago. And yet the team from the desert state has set itself ambitious goals for this tournament.

High hopes placed in the coach

"We will try to do better than in previous tournaments," said coach Amir Abdou after his team's arrival.

The coach is the man the underdogs of this tournament are putting their faith in above anyone else. In 2022, Abdou guided his home country, Comoros, to qualification for AFCON for the first time — before they surprised everyone by upsetting Ghana in the group stage, advancing to the knockout phase. However, 2022 hosts Cameroon proved too much for Comoros, sending them home with a 2-1 defeat in the round of 16.

Amir Abdo yelling from the touchline
Amir Abdo believes winning the first Group D match against Burkina Faso is keyImage: Tobi Adepoju/Shengolpixs/IMAGO

Still, the Comoros surprising run enhanced the 51-year-old coach's reputation for getting the most out of limited talent, arousing the interest of other small African footballing nations — including Mauritania. The Mauritanian team qualified for the 2019 and 2022 finals but went winless in both tournaments.

In their third appearance, they are determined not to let that happen again. And Abdou, who spent many years as a social worker in France before turning to coaching football full-time, believes much is riding on Mauritania's opening match.

"We will do everything we can to win our first group game against Burkina Faso," he said. "That will be the key."

Small country, major progress

The chances of the "Lions of Chinguetti" (Chinguetti is a trading post in the north of the country) advancing from their group don't look all that bad. Along with Mauritania and Burkina Faso, Group D includes Angola and Algeria. Algeria are currently in a state of upheaval and are no longer seen as strong as they once were, while Angola are seen to be on a par with Mauritania. With four of the six third-placed teams in the group stage making it through to the next round, Mauritania are in with a decent chance.

A view from the stands of Sheikh Buyidah Stadium in Nouakchott
Sheikh Buyidah Stadium in Nouakchott was renovated using FIFA fundsImage: Alain Guy Suffo/Sports Inc./empics/picture alliance

"Mauritania is one of the best examples of a country in Africa who have run a good technical football development program," Emeka Enyadike, head of sports at the South African TV station Supersport, told DW.

"They have also utilized their FIFA forward funding for technical development (well), and this is why they have qualified three times in a row for AFCON 2019, 2021, and now, AFCON 2023."

The development is indeed astonishing when you consider that it was only in 2009 that Mauritania's national team withdrew from the qualifiers for the 2010 Africa Cup — rock bottom for football in the country.

FIFA funds put to good use

But things started to change when Ahmed Yahya took over as president of Mauritania's FA in 2011.

"Stagnation in development is like a nasty disease," said the entrepreneur at the time. "You have to look at it, find the causes and start healing it."

Mauritania wisely invested the $11 million (€10 million) it received from the FIFA Development Fund. The association's headquarters were rebuilt, and the Sheikh Buyidah Stadium in Nouakchott was renovated, including excellent new training and playing facilities.

Ahmed Yahya
Ahmed Yahya did a lot to turn things around after taking the helm at the Mauritian FA in 2011Image: Ladjal Jafaar/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Mauritania has also been targeting youth development for several years, which is also co-financed by FIFA funds. Since 2019, Mauritania has been involved in the FIFA School Football Project, which organizes regular school tournaments in rural areas.

Bolstered by French and Belgian talent

However, the national team's recent success has come for an entirely different reason — recruiting players from abroad eligible to represent Mauritania. Although seven members of the current squad still play in the domestic league, some of the key players earn their money in France or Belgium.

Aboubakar Kamara, the 28-year-old captain of the team, once played for Fulham. Since returning to Africa, the attacker has gained much experience at several clubs. Alongside him, Hemeya Tanjy has impressed in recent months. The 25-year-old is not just a pure goal scorer but also a good ball distributor.

Aboubakary Koita gesturing during a match
In Ivory Coast, Mauritania will be counting on Aboubakary Koita's goal-scoring prowess Image: Bruno Fahy/Belga/dpa/picture alliance

Abdou recently identified another star in 25-year-old Aboubakary Koita, who plays for St. Truiden and with 11 goals, is one of this season's top scorers in Belgium's top flight.

Koita could have chosen to represent any one of three other countries, he was born in Belgium but his mother is from Senegal, and his father hails from Mali. It's through his father, who has Mauritanian roots that Koita qualifies to represent the country internationally.

Now his complete focus is on helping Mauritania make it out of the group stage at the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time — and these days, that's all anybody really cares about in that vast, lonely desert state.

This article was originally published in German.