The Old Smiling Guy

Eqatorial Guinea in West Africa was a Spanish colony. Few Spanish football fans know where it is or how the rulers continue the violent politics inherited from Spain.

Teodoro Obiang, right, listen to a Gabonese diplomat, Jean Ping, in July 2010 (Embassy of Equatorial Guinea, via Flickr CC)

Amidst the worst economic and social crisis that 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 about what happened at a private party in a Brazilian hotel during the 2013 Confederations Cup – the buzz is quickly downplayed and conveniently buried by more urgent affairs. This time the situation is a bit more weighty.

Now the Spanish national team is planning a friendly match against Spain’s former colony, Equatorial Guinea. The match is scheduled for Saturday 16 November in Malabo, that country’s capital.

The decision to play in Teodoro 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 wrote 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, a journalist for  “El Mundo” who has traveled reported several times from South Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, wrote an article on Saturday: “A ‘hooligan’ named Teodoro Obiang” – where he wrote that “the longest-serving president in Africa [meaning Obiang] 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 are 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 right in the photo above who has invited La Roja to play in his country.

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