x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

From Real Madrid to Equatorial Guinea for Javier Balboa

Six years after playing for Real Madrid in Champions League, winger is back on a big stage - this time for Equatorial Guinea in African Cup of Nations semi-final.

Equatorial Guinea Midfielder Javier-?ngel Balboa Osa (Foreground)  defends against Zambia's Striker Emmanuel Mayuka during thier Group A match of The  Africa Cup of Nations between  Equatorial Guinea and Zambia in Malabo on January 29, 2012, at the Malabo stadium.   AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE
Equatorial Guinea Midfielder Javier-?ngel Balboa Osa (Foreground) defends against Zambia's Striker Emmanuel Mayuka during thier Group A match of The Africa Cup of Nations between Equatorial Guinea and Zambia in Malabo on January 29, 2012, at the Malabo stadium. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE

At age 20, Javier Balboa seemed to have the world at his feet. He had been headhunted by the academy of the world's most glamorous club. For his senior professional debut, he took the place on the pitch of probably the world's most glamorous footballer.

Fifty-four minutes into a Spanish Primera Liga match at Deportivo La Coruna, David Beckham's No 23 came up on the fourth official's portable screen. On came Balboa, one of the jewels of Real Madrid's youth academy, a quick, buzzing right winger.

Soon afterwards, Balboa made his first start for Real, in the Champions League. Rivaldo, the former European Footballer of the Year, scored for Olympiakos that night. The goal was set up by Yaya Toure, then at the Greek club, now the African Footballer of the Year.

Fast-forward six seasons, and Balboa, 26, is once again on a major stage, one he had scarcely expected when he shared a dressing room with Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Brazil's Ronaldo and Raul in the city of his birth.

The distance between Madrid and Malabo is well over 4,000 kilometres. It has been quite a journey to Saturday night's African Cup of Nations quarter-final between Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Home advantage has boosted Equatorial Guinea on their debut at the tournament, as have the performances of Balboa. He scored the goal on the opening night, against Libya, that gave the hosts, by Balboa's account, the momentum they needed after a chaotic build-up.

"Not many people thought we could get through the group phase, but that first match gave us the belief," he said.

Balboa, whose parents left Equatorial Guinea, once a Spanish colony, to settle in Iberia before he was born, grew up dreaming of wearing the red of Spain rather than the crimson of a small, west-African nation with little football pedigree.

He was entitled to dream that way.

Among his contemporaries in the Real youth academy were players such as Alvaro Negredo, a current Spain striker, and Roberto Soldado, who soon will be. Among his most enthusiastic backers was Quique Sanchez Flores, now coach at Al Ahli, then a youth coach in Madrid.

Balboa never quite became Real's new Beckham, nor part of the Spanish national team's most successful generation in history. In the Primera Liga, he had his moments, mostly on loan at Racing Santander, though the level of his club football was gradually falling. The post-galactico Real continued to prize marquee signings over home-grown tyros, and a lack of playing time there persuaded Balboa to join Portugal's Benfica, where Sanchez Flores had become coach. The pair would fall out badly.

From Benfica, Balboa went on loan to the Spanish second-division outfits Cartagena and Albacete, before being released, a year ago, to join Beira-Mar of the Portuguese Superliga.

By this stage Balboa had, like several other footballer sons of Equatorial Guinea parents in Spain, answered the call to represent the Nzalang, as the national team are known.

He learnt more about the country, raised his eyebrows at the high turnover of Nzalang managers, but now appreciates "the great support we are now getting from the people".

His team are underdogs against the side of Didier Drogba, Gervinho, and Kolo Toure, whose much-decorated brother Yaya might just remember Javier Angel Balboa Osa from the winter night, a while ago, when Madrid came to Athens.

sports@thenational.ae