The 'plucky underdog' has qualified for the latter stages of the African Cup of Nations.....however....
It’s remarkable that so little has been written about Equatorial Guinea over the past couple of weeks. In their debut African Cup of Nations, the unfancied co-hosts have performed remarkably in qualifying for the knockout stages.
Initially, the progress of this tiny country off the coast of West Africa, population 720,000 looks like a heart warming tale. The former Spanish colony achieved independence in 1968 and since that time it has never qualified for any major championship on merit. Now, they’re taking their chance on the biggest stage in African football and neutral observers inclined to support the underdog could be forgiven for cheering them on. But for those who look a little deeper, the Equatoguinean fairytale soon takes a sinister twist. This underdog is tainted by the regime it represents and the methods it has used to secure success.
Firstly, a bit of background. In the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea hit upon vast reserves of black gold. Immediately, it became one of the largest oil producers in Sub-Saharan Africa. With such valuable resources and such a small population the future looked bright. Instead, the country became what the BBC called “a textbook case of the resource curse - or the paradox of plenty.”
By 2004, Equatorial Guinea had the fastest growing economy of any country in the world but, in an all too familiar tale, the ruling elites carved up most of the new found wealth. The country still places near the foot of the UN development index and the same source says that less than half of the population has access to clean water.
Equatorial Guinea’s two post independence leaders must shoulder much of the blame. Francisco Macias Nguema ruled the country from 1968 to 1979 and presided over an economic collapse and litany of human rights abuses. He’s also alleged to have orchestrated a campaign of genocide against the Bubi minority. Then there’s Teodoro Obiang, the current President who deposed his predecessor (also his uncle) in a coup. Under his dictatorial rule elections are a sham and opposition figures are widely persecuted. Human rights abuses continue unabated and corruption is rife.
Obiang himself is extremely wealthy, reportedly running a fleet of 11 supercars before they were seized in Paris last year. In 2011, the US Justice Department reported that his son Teodorin spent $100m on a private jet, Malibu mansion and collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia. This sounds like a satire but unfortunately it’s not.
Anti-poverty organisation One International had this to say on the day the Nations Cup began:
“The government of Equatorial Guinea hopes that the recently completed luxury hotels, golf resorts, and shiny monuments will disguise the grinding poverty that dominates the lives of most people in the oil-rich nation.
“At least 13 presidential palaces have been or are being constructed in ten cities across the country, a rate of one palace for every 54,000 people in this country.”
What this has to do with football is bound up in the debate about why the country sought to host the tournament in the first place. In convincing CAF to award Equatorial Guinea host nation status President Obiang argued that the cup’s legacy would boost development and increase international investment. At the group draw he said: “The only reason for winning the Cup is to present the best image of our country, to sell our image.”
Opposition leader Placido Miko disagrees. He told AFP: “We are hosting the Cup for the sole intention to divert national and international public opinion away from the real problems of Equatorial Guinea and to present an image which is not the reality of the country.”
There has been an increase in investment in roads in anticipation of the tournament but around €75m has also been spent on a new 15,000 seat stadium in Malabo and the renovation of another 38,000 seat venue in Bata. This spending has been hugely controversial with critics lambasting the cost to a country with a high child mortality rate and no real football heritage.
Then there’s the team itself. In their first two games, Equatorial Guinea did not field a single player born in the country. Instead, a mixture of Spanish born players who qualify through family ties and naturalised foreigners made up the team. As the tournament drew nearer the pace of recruitment increased to such an extent that by the opening game against Libya only four members of the 23 man squad held more than 10 caps.
After beating the Equatoguineans in the third group game, Zambia coach Herve Renard called for action.
"I would be very disappointed if, in 10 years' time, I saw a national team fielding five players who didn't have any connection with that country,"
“I ask FIFA to be very tough about this,” he said.
Cynics may argue that this is a team which represents the Obiang regime rather than the people of Equatorial Guinea or its 10 team domestic league. The government’s hands on approach to ensuring success caused the former France coach Henri Michel to resign his position as coach just a few weeks before the tournament began. Michel complained that he was being undermined by “external interference” and clashed with the former head of the national association Ruslan Obiang (another of the president’s sons).
In another example of how keen the government is to avoid embarrassment on the pitch, Teodorin (the country’s agriculture minister) paid the squad a bonus of $1m for each of their two group wins. A bonus of $20,000 was also on offer to each goalscorer.
All of this certainly undermines Equatorial Guinea’s plucky underdog image. It also calls into question again the judgment exercised by those who award tournaments to countries with deep-seated internal problems.
This case also forces us to consider what exactly international football is for if nations without any football pedigree can eschew the onerous task of building the game within their borders in favour of simply importing passport-to-play foreigners.
Spanish born Juvenal is the team’s vice captain, representing the country of his father. Unlike some of his colleagues, his ties to the Equatorial Guinea seem to be genuine and last year he told BBC World Service:
“I would prefer to go and play in Nigeria and Cameroon with all players who was born in Guinea or origin to Guinea. I prefer to go to play and lose three or four zero but all the team is Guinean.
The Nations Cup is certainly living up to its reputation as the most thought provoking tournament in the game.
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