Charting Mauritania's rise in African football

There was a time when the idea of a Mauritanian national football team was little more than a myth.

Between 2009 and 2011, the national side played just one match -- a friendly against Palestine which ended in a goalless draw -- and tumbled to 206th on the FIFA rankings.

At least Mauritania knew the only direction they could really move in was up.

Four years later, they have climbed 117 places, 48 of them have come in the last year alone, and can count among their triumphs a former continental champion, South Africa.

The turnaround has come through more regular game time and a reputable coach, former French midfielder Corentin Martins, who understands how to work within the limits of the resources at his disposal.

The Mauritanian side are inexperienced on the big stage and in life, with eight of their last 12 call-ups being 25 or younger, including promising striker Boubacar Bagili and young defender Aly Abeid.

Some of them play in amateur and lower leagues in France, a sprinkling have found deals in Algeria and Morocco but they bulk of them are based at home, where they remain relatively unknown to the rest of the continent, nevermind the world. But it is exactly that element of surprise that they are using to their advantage in their bid to close the skills gap Martins admits they have.

"You have to give 200 percent every time you go out on the pitch -- 100 percent isn't enough. We have very little room for maneuver, so to win matches it's indispensable to be at our best. We're not Argentina or Germany, so there are always quite a few things to rectify," Martins said after Mauritania's win over South Africa in the 2017 African Nations' Cup qualifiers.

South Africa are Mauritania's biggest win to date and beating them 3-1 was "a huge joy and an immense source of pride for every Mauritanian," as Martins put it. But Bafana Bafana were also left red-faced by their own lack of research. They did not source any footage of Mauritania before the game, neither did they have a video analyst with them on their trip to Nouakchott.

Other opposition will be wary of making the same mistakes, especially now that Mauritania have begun to announce their intent to have more of an impact on the global stage. They are already through to the second round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers, after seeing off debutants South Sudan, who held Mauritania to a goalless draw in the first leg.

Mauritania responded with a 4-0 victory at home and are four places away from their highest-ever ranking of 85th, which they hope to match and then surpass.

That is the vision of the Mauritanian FA chairman Ahmed Ould Abderrahmane, who took over the role towards the end of Mauritania's absence from the world stage, in 2011. His first action was to organise more matches for the national side, even if at first the results were unsuccessful.

In 2013, Mauritania played three matches and won two, both against Liberia. In 2013, they played six games and beat Senegal and Canada. In 2014, the played 11 games, which including a participation in the 2015 ANC qualifiers. They won two matches in that qualification process, against Mauritius and Equatorial Guinea, which was not enough to earn a place in the tournament but was enough to show they meant business. This year, they have already played eight matches this year and have won half of them. The progress is clear.

"The results are starting to come, which proves that we're on the right track," Cheikhani Ould Maouloud, Mauritania's director of football told FIFA.com in August.

"The strategy is to play international matches on the days allocated by FIFA and we're sticking to it. We've achieved our best ranking since 2008 and our aim now is to make it into the top 100."

Two months later, Mauritania have already ticked that box and now they are aiming for a little more. Martins is eyeing the African Nations' Championship -- the tournament for locally-based players only -- before he thinks about an ANC and there is method to his realism.

"Our goal now is to experience more moments like that," he said referring to the South Africa win. "But, for that to happen, we have to stop dreaming about that game. We need to continue progressing. What's important is for that win to give our players confidence."