At least Andoni Goikoetxea is clear about what he must do first in his new post as Equatorial Guinea’s manager – beat Cape Verde in two weeks’ time.
If the Butcher of Bilbao can lift a team that has underperformed since reaching the last eight of the African Nations Cup they hosted in 2012 to a higher place in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group – keeping them in contention for the event – he can begin to think about everything else that will challenge him in his first assignment in Africa.
The 56-year-old has extensive experience in his native Spain, both at club level and with youth sides, but has never been in charge of a national team. Nevertheless, much is expected of him.
Juvenal, the Equatoguinean captain, hopes Goikoetxea will inject new enthusiasm into a side that has stagnated. « We needed a fresh coach because there are difficult matches in the future and our recent results have not been good,” he said. “There was a problem, the team have played at a poor level. »
The biggest obstacle in the way of improvement is establishing unity. Not everyone who plays for Equatorial Guinea is from there or even has their heritage in the country, the region and in some cases, even the continent. To date, 21 Brazilians, 14 Cameroonians, four Senegalese, three Colombians, two Ghanians, two Ivorians, two Nigerians, one Liberian and two Spaniards (one with links to Cape Verde, the other to the Ivory Coast) have played for Equatorial Guinea as they took naturalisation to a new level.
It all began, as many things do, with money. When Equatorial Guinea began to profit from its oil in the mid-2000s, its economy grew at over 30% per annum. It enjoyed the highest per capita GDP on the continent, but the majority of the population lived below the poverty line because the wealth was concentrated in the hands of those with power.
One of those people was the president’s son, whose interests lay in football. In late 2005, he asked the then-coach, Brazilian Antonio Dumas, to recruit players from his homeland.
The money they were offered was substantial. Striker Andre Neles, who played six matches for the country revealed that he received $200,000 for agreeing to be naturalised and $10,000 for every match he played.
With word spreading that Equatorial Guinea were on the lookout, players from elsewhere, especially on the continent, gravitated towards them. Neighbouring Cameroon was one supplier of players because competition for places in the country’s own league is high.
One hopeful, Richard Ambassa, was interviewed by Radio Netherlands, but his was a more sober story of football migration. He holds down a day job as a hotel gardener while trying to make it, and has been downgraded from a premier league player for Deportivo United to a first division player at Ateneo. At his level, the average monthly salary ranges from $98 to $390.
Still, that is more money than many can make in their home countries, and the lure of the beautiful game holds strong – so strong that Equatorial Guinea fielded a team including 11 non-nationals at the 2012 ANC. They attracted much criticism, particularly from Zambia’s coach Herve Renard, but that did not stop them.
After losing a 2013 ANC qualifier to the Democratic Republic of Congo, they recruited nine Brazilians to help overturn the deficit in the second leg. They won the return fixture 2-1 but lost on aggregate and prompted DRC coach Claude le Roy to say his opponents behaved like the « United Nations of football. »
Even within, the idea of a composite team has caused division. Former coach Henri Michel was not in favour of the excessive naturalisation plan and wanted to maintain an Equatoguinean identity. As a result, he resigned from the football association twice, citing « external interference. »
Juvenal – who was born in Spain but has an Equatoguinean father – is also against it and would rather lose by « three or even four goals but have most of the players from the same country ».
But for some, what is happening is simply keeping up with globalising trends. Thierry Fidjeu Tazamata, a Cameroonian who used to captain Union Sportive de Douala, changed his nationality to be able to play at ANC 2012 and said. « Teams everywhere in the world do it, including the French and the Germans.
“In our team, we have ten players of foreign origin, of whom two or three have been born here. It happens everywhere. » The women’s team, who have played in three African Championship finals and won two, do exactly the same thing.
To bring together the clashing ideologies and nationalities will be Goikoetxea’s main task. Although he may clash with officials, he will be heartened by efforts to improve even the local game.
After the 2012 ANC, the Equatoguinean government ploughed $1.56 million into the local league to revitalise it. Previously, the competition had been played in two sections, one on the mainland and one on the island of Bioko, where the capital, Malabo, is situated.
Before the cash injection, the six island teams shared a single stadium. Now all 12 teams play as one group and have seven different stadiums around the country.
The money is used for accommodation, transport and players’ health insurance, but the greatest return on that investment will not be if it can produce a competitive league. Instead it will be if the structure can unearth locally-based players good enough to compete on the international stage and put an Equatoguinean heart back into the national team.
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