Spanish Soccer Team Under Fire for Game in Equatorial Guinea
Published: November 14, 2013
MADRID — As the reigning world and European champion, Spain’s national soccer team has become an emblem of success for a country whose image has otherwise been battered by record unemployment and a banking bailout last year.
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But when the Spanish soccer federation unexpectedly accepted an invitation to play a friendly game against Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony whose president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been accused of plundering his nation’s oil revenues and torturing political opponents to maintain his grip on power, it triggered an uproar because of Spain’s high-profile status in world soccer.
La Roja, as the national team is known, will face Equatorial Guinea on Saturday in the African country’s capital, Malabo, then head south to play South Africa three days later.
Spain won its first World Cup in South Africa three years ago.
Until last week, Spain had been expected to play either Angola or Gabon before traveling to South Africa, but those plans fell through and the Spanish federation then surprisingly switched to Equatorial Guinea.
Francisco Pascual Obama Asue, Equatorial Guinea’s sports minister, called La Roja’s visit “great news,” adding that Spain had accepted the invitation “without any financial compensation, thanks to the excellent cultural relations of friendship and cooperation between Spain and our country.”
Still, several Spanish opposition politicians have denounced the Spanish soccer federation’s decision to foster a relationship with the regime of Mr. Obiang, who seized power in a military coup in 1979.
Some of these politicians have also urged Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to ensure that no Spanish official attend the match to avoid giving any appearance of support to Mr. Obiang.
Gaspar Llamazares, a leftist member of the Spanish Parliament, said this week that the game would have “a clearly political character.” He accused the Spanish soccer federation of a “lack of sensitivity” and of ensuring that “a dictatorship gets endorsed by a team that is world champion.” Emilio Olabarría, a lawmaker from the Basque Nationalist Party, said the Spanish federation should have realized that “soccer is more than soccer and has moral legitimacy value.”
Spain’s decision to play in Malabo has also been criticized by human rights activists and opponents of Mr. Obiang.
The Spanish federation, however, said that it had negotiated the game with its counterpart and not with Mr. Obiang or his political entourage. Jorge Pérez, secretary general of the federation, also told Spanish reporters that “never have we received any kind pressure from the Spanish government to go there.”
Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony until the late 1960s and retains Spanish as its national language. Vicente Palacio, a Spanish foreign policy expert who is assistant director of Fundación Alternativas, a Madrid-based research institution, said Spain had long felt it had a “bad conscience” for pursuing a policy of “appeasement” toward the country’s dictatorial regime after the coup.
But Palacio also described as “ridiculous” the idea that soccer can avoid politics. “We’re not going onto the pitch to defeat a dictatorship,” he said.
Equatorial Guinea is coached by a former Spanish national team player, Andoni Goikoetxea, and the team has an extra incentive to pull of an upset Saturday: Teodoro Nguema Obiang, generally known as Teodorín and the son of the president, has promised a bonus payment of 5 million euros, or $6.7 million, to the team if it wins.