Spanish stray into dangerous territory

Spain's  players gather at the start of a  training session at Soccer City in Las Rozas, near Madrid earlier this week. Picture: Reuters

Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla may have been expecting the question, but he was still hesitant with his answer.

“We have read in the press about some political things, but we stay away from that,” the Arsenal player told Spanish radio this week.

“If the federation has decided on the game, they must think it is the best option. Hopefully there will be a nice game of football for people to enjoy. Nobody thinks about other things.”

Unfortunately for Cazorla, and especially for the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), this is not the case.

Many people in Spain and elsewhere have been thinking about things other than football ahead of La Roja’s friendly in Equatorial Guinea tonight.

Equatorial Guinea is a former Spanish colony, which co-hosted the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations and their national manager is former Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea.

It also makes a handy stopping off-point ahead of Spain’s game in South Africa on Tuesday, when Spain will return to the scene of their 2010 World Cup triumph.

But less auspiciously, the small West-African country also ‘boasts’ one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, where president Teodoro Obiang has ruled since 1979.

While booming oil revenues have recently helped Obiang, 71, project himself as the leader of a fast emerging nation, human rights abuses and grinding poverty remain widespread.

Wenceslao Mansogo of opposition party CPDS told El Pais last weekend that the Spanish players were being used as propaganda pawns.

“The government uses such events to give an image of normality, so people forget about the oppression,” Mansogo said.

“That La Roja comes here is indecent on Spain’s part. This is an advertisement for Obiang. I like football, and there are many fans in the country, but in this case reality is being covered up. There is no type of freedom of expression, opinion or movement within the country.

“The justice system does not work, there are arbitrary detentions and political and military abuses.”

Sensing a story, the Spanish media probed further into the thinking behind playing a team ranked 119th in the world.

The game was not even supposed to happen. Early plans to play in either Gabon or Angola fell through when neither country coughed up the reported €2 million appearance fee demanded by Spanish officials.

Links between the federations then apparently set the fixture up at short notice.

RFEF sources say they are not being paid to play in Malabo, but dissident Guinean politician Severo Moto claims otherwise.

“Obiang took advantage of the opportunity to say, ‘come here, I can sort out everything’,” said Moto, who broke with Obiang in the 1980s and has received asylum in Spain.

“He is used to paying very well. We believe he has paid between €5m and €15m euro, most likely 15. I have direct information of the amount from the Equatorial Guinea embassy in Madrid.”

The RFEF hawking its team around is not new. Since 2010 Spain’s players have been dragged to Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, the USA, Dubai and Puerto Rico for games, amid loud talk of a duty to play in front of other Spanish-speaking fans, and quieter reports of appearance fees being paid.

Defender Sergio Ramos this week suggested he and his team-mates would much rather play closer to home, but still toed the federation’s line.

“These are not enjoyable journeys for anyone, as they take so long,” Ramos admitted.

“But whenever you meet up with your team-mates it is positive. It could be Guinea, South Africa or wherever, you need to have the same motivation because the most important thing for a player is to defend the colours of their country.

“There are many countries where you do not have a chance to see world champions up close.”

Ramos probably did not know that, while oil proceeds mean Equatorial Guinea is the richest country per capita in Africa, three-quarters of its 650,000 people live on less than $1 (€0.74) a day.

Or that ticket prices for Saturday’s game range from $10 (€7.40) to $150 (€112), ruling out most of the local population.

The publicity made the game a party political issue in Spain, amid reports the Madrid government saw the game as a possible means of getting closer to Obiang and the Guinean oil industry. Government figures denied this, while RFEF president Angel Maria Villar dodged reporters’ questions about the fixture by claiming (laughably) that he had a right to remain silent.

Such reticence is unusual for Villar, who during previous trips has regularly posed for photographers standing between ‘his’ World Cup winners and local politicians and business people.

It seems Obiang’s regime had similar plans for this week, judging from its statement welcoming the fixture.

“The Spanish team has accepted to play thanks to the excellent ties of culture, friendship and co-operation which unite Spain with our country,” it read.

Meanwhile, Obiang’s son — also the country’s vice-president — offered the Guinea players a €5m bonus should they beat the team representing the former colonial masters.

Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque at least recognised some issues around the game, but attempted to play them down by recalling links between the countries.

“We do not want to get into political matters,” Del Bosque said.

“There are countries which are maybe not total democracies. The country is independent at the moment, but was dependent on Spain in the past.

“They have a Spanish coach, there is good relationship between the countries. We are giving people a chance to see the world champions. I understand what you are saying, but we do not get into that.”

Del Bosque at least had the good grace to sound uncomfortable about the situation, while you can understand why Cazorla and Ramos might want to steer away from controversy.

But hopefully none of them will be smiling for the cameras with the Obiang family and their cronies before kick-off tonight.


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