Football and Dictatorships

How much of Equatorial Guinean's tax money did the Obiangs pay to the Spanish FA for a meaningless match between its national teams?

David Villa scores for Spain vs Portugal in the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa (Jimmy Baikovicius, via Flickr CC).

World and European champions Spain will play Equatorial Guinea in a friendly in Malabo on November 16th, 2013. We can only speculate as to why Spain is playing this match. There’s of course history: Equatorial Guinea was one of Spain’s African colonies along with Morocco and Western Sahara. Secondly, there are diplomatic and economic considerations. Equatorial Guinea is the third largest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa. As for the football; we’re less sure about that.

One possibility may be that former Spanish national team center-back Andoni Goikoetxea is the Equatorial Guinea men’s national team coach. Another may be that some of the national team players are registered with Spanish clubs. Actually most of them are Brazilians.  (Equatorial Guinea’s national team has been mockingly referred to as the “United Nations” of football for the number of naturalized Brazilians and other foreigners–with no apparent connection to the country–selected for the national team. As the South African football journalist Mark Gleeson has summarized FIFA’s policy: “… in order to qualify for international football players must be born in the territory of the relevant team, have a biological parent or grandparent from that territory, or have lived continuously in the country for at least two years.” Equatorial Guinea doesn’t care about those rules.)

Back to Spain. It can’t be about finding decent friendly competition for the Spanish men’s national team. Equatorial Guinea is ranked 119th by FIFA (Tajikistan, Latvia and Kenya has a better ranking); have never qualified for the World Cup; and only qualified for the African Cup of Nations because they co-hosted the continental tournament in 2012. How serious Spain is taking this game is reflected by the fact that the Spanish FA gave Equatorial Guinea about 10 days notice to schedule the game.

And it is not like Spain needed the match practice: Spain already scheduled a match against South Africa in Johannesburg on November 19th–two days after the Equatorial Guinea game. The South Africa match sorta make sense. While South Africa’s national team is terrible–they are ranked 61st by FIFA and only qualify for tournaments when they host–at least the match has sentimental value ahead of 2014: South Africa is where Spain won their first ever World Cup title in 2010.

Then it emerges that before deciding to play Equatorial Guinea, the Spanish FA had first considered Angola (ranked 93rd) and Gabon (84th). An odd coincidence is that all three countries are ruled by politically repressive and corrupt regimes, which is why we flagged the November 16th game as dodgy.

Equatorial Guinea specifically is a kleptocracy and a dictatorial regime. Teodoro Obiang, president since 1979 (he took power in a coup and regularly wins elections by wide margins), is the longest serving ruler in Africa and the country’s richest man.

Obiang claims the reason he personally runs the country’s treasury “to prevent others falling into temptation.” But instead, this gives him carte blanche to treat the public purse as his family fortune. For example, an investigation into a collapsed US bank discovered that Obiang controlled $700m in deposits there alone, reported Ian Birrell in The Guardian this September. Right before the African Nations Cup, Birrell accompanied a group of British politicians and lobbyists on a junket to Equatorial Guinea. Birrell described the country “like something out of The Truman Show” where per-capita wealth exceeds Britain but three-quarters of its 675,000 citizens live on less than a dollar a day, infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world and political opponents are jailed or driven into exile.

The government is really run like a family business. Obiang’s family fills the Cabinet. There’s Obiang’s son, also Teodoro, who serves as Vice President (!) and is also Minister of Agriculture and Forests (while he buys up properties and pursues a career as a rap producer in Hollywood), while another relative is Minister of Mines, Industry and Energy (meaning oil).

It’s clear why the Obiangs want this match to happen. Lately Equatorial Guinea’s ruling family has been hard at work to burnish their reputation, hiring PR consultants (a former Clinton advisor was on its payroll for a while) and trying to have Obiang’s name connected to “human rights” and “good governance” awards (at one point he succeeded in having a UNESCO Prize named for him).

It’s inconceivable that no one at the Spanish FA asked about Equatorial Guinea and the Obiangs’ reputation when the national federation discussed the offer to play in Malabo.

Similarly, one wonders why there hasn’t been any public outcry or debate over this in Spain, whether by trade unions, social movements, human rights groups or Equatorial Guinean exiles? Yesterday I asked  Pablo Medievilla Costa, one of my former students and a journalist from Barcelona, whether he had heard or read any dissent or debate about this: “Not a word.”

There’s still one week to the game, but we’re not holding our breath.

A quick online search, including on Twitter (both in English and Spanish), just yields summaries of the game announcement, though here and there, there’s more. An unlikely source such as Al Ahram (staunch supporters of first Mubarak’s regime and now of the Egyptian military dictatorship), did feel compelled to editorialize: “Considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, oil-producing Equatorial Guinea’s soccer team are ranked 119th in the world by governing body FIFA.”

UPDATE: On public debate about the match, we found this angry post by Barcelona-based exiled blogger Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel: “Now that the selection of Spain will play with a combination of Brazilian, African and other Latin Americans is just proof that to get children out of bed to hold up a poster against racism in big games is hypocritical, because FIFA is not interested in the fight against inequality, … This goes out to you, tío Vicente del Bosque.”

So, here’s a question for the Spanish media (since their counterparts in Malabo would risk their lives by asking): how much of the Equatorial Guinean public purse did the Obiangs pay to the Spanish FA to make this match happen?

Further Reading

The Emperor’s Son

The decision by Spain’s national football team to go play a football friendly in its former colony, Equatorial Guinea, has spotlighted how the latter country is run.