Esteban Becker: Equatorial Guinea is as small as an ant, but as strong as an elephant. The 2015 Africa Cup of Nations brought to light a new team of the African football27.04.2015
What comes to your mind when you think of the Africa Cup of Nations? Swashbuckling football with little focus on defense, controversial refereeing and horrible goalkeeping. And when you think of favorites and top-ranked teams? Ghana and Asamoah Gyan, Ivory Coast and Didier Drogba, or Cameroon and Samuel Eto’o. The CAN-2015 host did not win the championship, but even bold forecasts could not predict that Equatorial Guinea would advance to knockout stage and become a top-four team in the continent. The history of success is challenging.
In January 2011, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced Morocco would host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Just like in 1988, when it hosted the 16th edition of the CAN, the country was deliberately preparing its venues for the tournament, and local fans were eagerly waiting for the event. But the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in early 2014 made adjustments to the schedule.
Morocco requested CAF to postpone the tournament for 2016, as it feared a massive influx of fans from virus affected countries. But the CAF Board decided to keep the date. There were proposals to organize matches outside the continent, e.g., in Qatar. “The Africa Cup to be held outside of Africa? That’s inconceivable!” decided the President of Equatorial Guinea and offered his country to take over as host.
President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo showed his worth as a real pan-Africanist who advocates the interests of the continent. But a solution and its implementation is often divided by insurmountable obstacles. Equatorial Guinea had only 50 days to prepare for the tournament. The country co-hosted the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, with Gabon. Estadio de Bata and Nuevo Estadio de Malabo were the two stadiums specifically constructed to be CAN’s venues that gave a big boost for football in the country. This no doubt facilitated the task, but just partially. Eventually, another two stadiums, in Mongomo and Ebebiyín were selected.
The national Football Federation was founded in 1957, and it became à full member of FIFA in 1986 only. The national team nicknamed Nzalang has never been a front-rank African team, and its modest record of achievements cannot be compared with Africa’s best football clubs. Moreover, it was among underperformers. Its first appearance was in 2012 Africa Cup of Nations where it qualified as a co-host, and unexpectedly advanced to quarterfinals. In 2015, the tournament was also held at top level, with stadiums filled to capacity. Being the host inspired the Equatorial Guinea’s team that made it to the semifinals showing the best performance ever. Actually, it was the starting point for the history of the team never heard of before.
Naturalized footballers gave a good impetus to Equatoguinean football at some point, but their recruitment generated disputes and discord with other African teams. Whatever the case, their contribution to the national team can hardly be overestimated. The state-backed transfer of top football players to Equatorial Guinea was beneficial to domestic players who progressed fast and gained a competitive edge.
In Equatorial Guinea, football is by all means sport number one, largely owing to its having been a colony of Spain where football has always been a popular game. The Equatoguinean Premier League, the top division of the national football federation, involves over 20 clubs. The roaring success of the national team could not but affect the national championship which is on the march attracting an increasing number of spectators.
Government does not sit idle. The development of a country always has a positive impact on the development of sports generally and football particularly, and recent success of the national team contributed much to the growth of domestic football. The local football federation and state authorities exert efforts to improve football infrastructure that enables to master native players not relying on mercenaries. In the near future, Equatorial Guinea can obviously turn into a powerful football force in the African continent.
By the way, the national team had less time to prepare for the Africa Cup of Nations, than the country had. Team manager Andoni Goikoetxea was sacked just a couple of weeks before the start of the tournament, due to poor performance. So, Esteban Becker who guided to victory the Equatoguinean women’s team in the African Championship, was appointed as manager for the national team. And Becker did a great job!
Making its way towards the semifinal, Equatorial Guinea rose to great heights. The team earned record-breaking 370 points in FIFA ranking, and moved into top 50 teams, for the first time in its history. The best is yet to come! Equatorial Guinea is as small as an ant, but as strong as an elephant, says Becker. The Argentinean coach counts on a flash-like shift from defense to offense, and a rapid transition in the opposite direction. It is surprising that the coach managed to turn the team of semipros into a team to reach a historical 49th position of the FIFA World Rankings, for less than 20 days.