A North African country known for its dry climate and scorching high temperatures, government issues and turmoil, long-time ethnic tensions, unemployment and slavery - a shameful act that still exists in the country despite its “official abolishment” over 30 years ago. This nation hasn’t achieved much athletic and sports wise, especially when it comes to its most popular sport - football. Despite the improvements, they haven’t tasted much success from the sport and still lag behind most countries in the continent and internationally. The country I’m talking about is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

Mauritania-nicknamed the “Mourabitounes”- established its FA in 1961, joined CAF seven years later in 1968 and eventually became a FIFA member in 1971. The nation, that is part of the “Maghreb” of Africa, has achieved very little success in football, where they went - before November 14, 2003 - 8 years without a win. Regularly underperforming, disappointing in continental tournaments and endeavors, most recently, in the African Cup of Nations/World Cup Qualifiers, where the Mourabitounes lost all six of their qualifying matches. Mauritania has suffered for many years with plenty of issues outside of football, especially political, 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 neighboring countries, Senegal and Mali, state-sponsored killings against them were authorized, and the perjury and expulsion of tens of thousands of them from government and military duty. The country has also and still is undergoing a very prominent issue that has been going on for over 500 years - slavery - despite its “official abolishment” in 1981. Thousands of Mauritians (around 50,000-100,000) - especially Black Africans - are used as slaves in the North African nation.

These tensions and issues, along with a border war with neighbors Senegal, that occurred from 1989-1990, destabilised the government, causing a number of bloodless coups over the years. This also, obviously, affected the countries football scene, causing several interruptions to its Premier League, which wasn’t held in the years of 1980, 1989, 1996 and 1997, because of the political turmoil, financial problems - not only because of the country’s poor economy (ranked 137 out of 157 countries based on their wealth by the UN) - but also because of a lack of sponsorship in a country where even their state channel, Mauritania TV, is reluctant to broadcast the national football matches. This lack of attention for football in the country has affected the sport severely, displaying the poor quality of the league - that’s dominated by clubs originating from the capital of Nouakchott who’ve won it 26 times out of 32 occasions - and football top to bottom.

Mauritania lacks football infrastructure with only two official stadiums - Stade Olympique and Stade Sebkha - both with a capacity to hold around 40,000 spectators. The main and most used stadium, Stade Olymique, doesn’t fit FIFA’s requirements with the same surface and the same pitch is still in play for the last 17 years. The lack of infrastructure, and attempts to renovate these stadiums, is not helped by the financial problems and lack of support - also because of its climate and terrain, which is dry and difficult known for its dilapidated roads - 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 football”, former national team goalkeeper, Ba Sangare, claimed. Adding, “For example, currently, we use the same football field we’ve been using for the last 15 years. There’s only one main stadium and it does not fit the FIFA international standards.” (Quotes from an interview in 2009 with Reuters)

The country has also been prone and affected by severe locust attacks that has hurt and damaged its agricultural resources, including a major one in 2007, which badly damaged one of its football stadiums where the grass was eaten up by these pesky insects that have long been a nuisance for the country’s agricultural sector. These factors have affected the construction of quality pitches and surfaces and other football infrastructure, which have severely restricted the number of training opportunities for its footballers. All these problems have caused Mauritania to languish as one of the weakest footballing nations on the continent, ranked at 203 in the world and 53 amongst African nations.

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, which was 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 5 million Ouguiyas ($19,763), to have at least eight salaried players insured and have signed contracts and employ a paid technical staff. The FFRIM have also enforced a strict budget limit for the country’s Division 1 and 2 sides of $78,000 in 2010.

The FFRIM have also opened a new youth center in Nouadhibou on March 14th of this year that covers 128 sq. miles and cost over 241 million Ouguiyas (around $826,500). They’ve also promised to build a new Olympic Stadium complex, a new 20,000 seater in the capital of Nouakchott and to upgrade their local pitches nationwide. The top club division, Premier Division, has increased in size from 9 to 14 clubs, while they’re trying to increase the number of clubs in the second division to 16 and add a third division as well. The FFRIM have cooperated with FIFA on three GOAL projects in 2001, 2004 and 2008, which helped in the construction of the association’s headquarters, technical center, training facilities and implanting artificial turfs, which totaled a cost of around $1.3 million, and they’ve also recently donated 400 pairs of football boots to the country. They also plan, according to Yahya, to reopen a youth football academy in the capital and to improve the coverage of football in the country, where they’ve set up a TV studio and weekly program dedicated to cover football on the aforementioned state channel- Mauritania TV.

The improvements have helped Mauritania gain some success continentally when one of its clubs, Tevragh Zeina, advancing to the second round of the African Confederations Cup, the first club from Mauritania to do so since 1994. 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 MLS star, Eric Descombes, were persuaded to officially join the Mauritanian national side. Several others also ply their trade in various countries throughout Europe from Greece, Romania, the lower divisions in France 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.

Despite these improvements, Mauritania have still struggled with disorganization and financial trouble within the FFRIM, which forced them to embarrassingly withdraw from the African Cup of Nations 2012 qualifiers (CAF have suspended the national side for three years due to the withdrawal) and even canceling the Amilcar Cup (They were once runners-up in 1995 - their biggest football achievement) which they were expected to host for the second time after they failed to host it in 1990 due to political tensions domestically and with Senegal. The FFRIM were also involved in a domestic controversy when they awarded last season’s Premier League title to Tevragh Zeina, after FC Nouadhibou refused to play a playoff against them. FC Nouadhibou, angered by the decision, sued the FA and took their case to the Court of Arbitration of Sport, who duly awarded them the title - overruling the FFRIM’s decision. Another worrying factor is government involvement in the sport, where some clubs are run by former of the political elite, like in the case of CF Cansado, which is run by the country’s first democratically elected president, Sidi Oudi Cheikh Abdallahi, who was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 2008. These factors; disorganization, tough climate conditions, financial issues, lack of sponsorship and coverage and government involvement have badly affected and hurt the sport, turning Mauritania to one of the poorest football nations in Africa.

I hope, as a neutral, to see Mauritania one day in a major tournament and face off against the best in Africa. They’ve the football talent to improve and lay the foundations of a solid national team which can only benefit the sport in the country. It’s going to a lot of work and effort, especially with the many issues and difficulties it faces but 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.

Omar Almasri is the editor of O-Posts which can be read here. You can follow Omar on Twitter @OAlmasri

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AuthorOmar Almasri