Amidst the worst economic and social crisis Spain can remember, there is an iconic institution living its most glorious days. The Spanish national football team, commonly remembered in the past for sour losses and unforgettable mistakes, has taken world football by storm after winning a World Cup and two European Championships in the last five years. This indisputable success of a golden generation of players has raised the team to such heights of praise and public importance that any criticism is rare. Anytime a problem rears its head–for example, the accusations of a private party in a Brazilian hotel during the Confederations Cup–the buzz is quickly downplayed and conveniently buried by more urgent affairs. This time the situation is a bit more weighty.
Not that the friendly game against Equatorial Guinea scheduled for next Saturday 16 in Malabo has been the talk of town, but the decision to play in Obiang’s turf raises obvious questions about the ethics of a unique team that has been pictured here and abroad as a pristine bunch of humble geniuses, often involved in humanitarian campaigns and all sorts of goodwill gestures that come with fame nowadays.
The initial announcement of the match was met with little commentary as Sean blogged here last Friday (later that day some media, including The UK Guardian, picked up on the story). By the weekend (Saturday), more journalists were weighing in. Alberto Rojas, an El Mundo journalist who has traveled several times to South Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo or Rwanda, wrote an article on Saturday–titled “A ‘hooligan’ named Teodoro Obiang,” in which he wrote that “the longest-serving president in Africa uses football as an international showcase of his kleptomaniac regime shielded by its huge oil reserves.”
The more influential El País published an extensive article (“The dangerous liaisons of La Roja“), focused on the commercial ties between Spain and Equatorial Guinea as a plausible reason for the match:
Spain maintains diplomatic relations with Equatorial Guinea, has an embassy there, is the third commercial client of the country–after USA and Italy–and is the second provider of Guinea–after China.
The not-so-transparent governing body of football in Spain, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (REFF), is responsible for the national team’s season schedule, with friendly matches being one of its most lucrative operations. This time, both the game in Malabo and the one in South Africa will be free of charge. The REFF secretary general said yesterday:
We collaborate in many areas with the Guinean federation, which has asked us many times to play there. Now the conditions to make it happen were present and the game will be a major economic help for them. We will play for the Guinean people.
The feeling is disappointing. Almost no one cares about the implications of this match in Malabo, knows where Equatorial Guinea is or, even worse, who that old smiling guy is (in the photo, second from the left) who has invited La Roja to play in his country.