x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A tough build-up to their big day for Equatorial Guinea

A late of coach means it has not been an ideal preparation to the African Cup of Nations for the co-hosts.

A workman busy outside the Estadio de Bata
A workman busy outside the Estadio de Bata "Bata Stadium" which will host Equatorial Guinea's opening game at the African Cup of Nations.

The British novelist Graham Greene once described Equatorial Guinea as a "little, dreadful Spanish island." And Greene was generally fond of West Africa.

Historically, it has often been dismissed as hostile, and gets casually confused with countries further to the north.

It is smaller than Guinea, and less populous even than little Guinea-Bissau. Its capital, Malabo, on Bioko island, is closer to Cameroon than to the mainland part of a nation that was once a rare Spanish colony in Africa, and whose borders are an arbitrary hangover from that era, spreading untidily between islands and a chunk of the continent's Atlantic coast and interior.

Equatorial Guinea is best known for a variety of things, including the unflattering human rights record of its long-time head of state Teodoro Obiang, the international shopping extravagances of some members of his family, its considerable oil and gas reserves and for being the site of an attempted coup by a group of foreign mercenaries in March 2004 to which Mark Thatcher, the son of a former British prime minister, would be linked.

What it is not much known for is its football. That will change tomorrow as the country hosts a major finals for the first time, and plays in the opening match of the 28th African Cup of Nations against Libya as a debutant in a senior finals tournament.

All that oil and gas wealth helped the Equatorial Guinea government's bid to jointly organise the event with Gabon; what remains to be seen is whether home support and a US$1 million (Dh3.6m)-per-match win bonus offered to the Equatorial Guinea players - reportedly straight from the personal funds of Obiang's son - can lift a team with almost no tournament pedigree.

Some of the omens are not good. The squad have had an abrupt change of head coach just ahead of the tournament.

The Equatorial Guinean Federation had hired Henri Michel, who has coached France, Cameroon, Morocco, Ivory Coast and numerous other countries, ahead of their big moment. The relationship would be fraught.

Part of the problem with Michel seemed to be cultural. The coach complained about the lack of support he had from the authorities.

A group of players complained about Michel. Most of the protesters were Spanish-based professionals who, over the last six or seven years, the federation had made it a priority to seek out.

In that they have only followed what French, English and Portuguese-speaking African countries had been doing for years, which was to contact potential talents from overseas.

There are thousands of people with Equatorial Guinean backgrounds born or living in Spain: a handful have become good footballers, such as Rudolfo Bodipo, an effective and respected Spanish Primera Liga striker for most of his career, now with Deportivo La Coruna.

Bodipo aspired to playing for Spain as a teenager, but the 34 year old will tonight get to captain the country his father came from against Libya.

There are nine others with similar dual, Spanish-Equatorial Guinea heritage in the squad. By some accounts, Michel would have liked their cadre to hold less influence.

"Michel's problem," said Benjamin Zarandona, the former Equatorial Guinea midfielder, who played for Real Betis in Spain, "was that he hated the whole Spanish connection. We even arranged a petition against him."

Some Spanish-based players had also resented the rapid naturalisation of footballers from elsewhere in west Africa as Equatorial Guinea citizens.

Quite a few passports of convenience have been issued to footballers there in recent years, including to the Brazil-born goalkeeper, Danilo.

Michel - who had already resigned once in mid-2011, saying his working conditions were impossible, and then retracted - quit for good in late December. The Frenchman's replacement is a Brazilian, Gilson Paulo, who has had scant time to settle in, make sure his Spain-based players get along OK with his locally-based players, and learn to live with the scrutiny of the Obiangs.

The country wants to make a success of their moment on the global stage, and it wants the national team as an ally, at least until the quarter-finals.