Mauritania qualified for its first major soccer tournament on Sunday when it beat Botswana to claim a place at next year’s African Cup of Nations.
It was the second major surprise of qualifying after Madagascar sealed a spot at the African Cup for the first time last month.
Mauritania, a country in northwest Africa covered almost completely by the Sahara desert, came from behind to beat Botswana 2-1 with two goals by forward Ismael Diakite.
It means a nation that waited 17 years after its first international game for its first win will finally play among the continent’s best teams next June and July.
Mauritania is one of 13 countries to have now qualified for an expanded 24-team Cup of Nations hosted by Cameroon. Eight of them qualified this weekend, the penultimate round of games, led by former champions Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Algeria.
Nigeria is back at the tournament – for the first time since it won the title in 2013 – after a 1-1 draw with South Africa in Johannesburg on Saturday. A Nigerian state governor promised the team $25,000 for every goal in the crucial game but one was enough as Nigeria secured the point it needed to guarantee it one of the two qualifying places from the group.
Ivory Coast, the 2015 African champion, made sure of its place despite an underwhelming qualification campaign when it drew 1-1 in Guinea on Sunday. The result qualified both teams. Morocco’s place was confirmed after Malawi surprisingly lost 2-1 in Comoros. That eliminated the Malawians and caused their federation head, Walter Nyamilandu, a newly elected member of the FIFA Council, to complain about the makeup of the Comoros squad. It’s almost completely foreign-born players and Comoros’ goals against Malawi were scored by French-born players El Fardou Ben Nabouhane and Nasser Chamed.
Nyamilandu claimed on Twitter that Comoros “buy citizenship to make a national team” and called it “immoral.” There was no sign of an official protest by Malawi, though.
Algeria is through after winning 4-1 in Togo, helped by two goals from Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Other teams to qualify this weekend were Mali and Uganda.
War-torn Libya, which has twice in the last five years had to back out of hosting the African Cup because of its civil war, still has a chance to qualify. Libya crushed Seychelles 8-1 and faces South Africa in a decisive game in the final round of qualifying in March to see who joins Nigeria at the African Cup from that group. Although it’s a “home” game for Libya, the North Africans haven’t played on home soil for five years because of the conflict, instead holding their home games in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Libya needs a win while South Africa just needs to draw.
More debutants may be joining Madagascar and Mauritania next year, the first time the African Cup has expanded to 24 teams from its usual 16. Burundi needs a draw at home in its final game against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s Gabon to reach the finals. Lesotho, the tiny country surrounded by South Africa, is also still in contention.