Cinderella Story leaves Equatorial Guinea dreaming of its moment in the spotlight
Just as the rain picks up its pace, in and around Stade Bikuy, a smart facility just outside Bata, Esteban Becker has seen enough for today. Equatorial Guinea are practising penalties, but Becker vows not to further erode the confidence of his players. The latest effort had only accelerated his judgement, from the Mizuno boots of Igor Engonga, the Equatoguinean defender who plies his trade for CD Tropezón in the Segunda División B, the Spanish third division, a swerving strike which plummeted uncontrollably beyond the playing field and into the corridors which lead to the facility’s bowels.
The feel-good factor, though, is impenetrable. From the depths of European football to the little-known Equatoguinean ‘Liga Semiprofesional’, the sense of unity is palpable. Deep in Equatorial Guinea, lies a dream, built on foundations of graft and determination. It is one which resounds with the nation of 1,622,000. They call it ‘Unidad’. Simply put, it translates to ‘Unity’.
On Thursday evening, in what will be a tense, enthralling affair contested in humid conditions, the hosts of this year’s edition of Africa’s elite competition, the Africa Cup of Nations, will face Ghana in a semi-final clash in Malabo. Given the indisputable quality of Avram Grant’s side, Becker’s men enter the monumental encounter as underdogs.
It is a miracle that the meagre nation was able to stage the tournament at such notice. Morocco, who were due to host the competition, pulled out from the privilege due to fears of the Ebola epidemic spreading to the North African nation. The tiny oil-rich nation was awarded hosting rights and has grasped the opportunity with both hands.
Though their hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations has not been deprived of controversy. Claude LeRoy, the veteran Congo manager, lambasted the dearth of accommodation, describing the electricity as “terrible” and bemoaning the absence of water. The 66-year-old’s frustrations were echoed by those of Burkina Faso coach Paul Put, criticising the facilities available and suggesting the tournament should have been delayed and scheduled for July.
What is ever more jaw-dropping, however, is Equatorial Guinea’s run to the semi-finals. It has been unorthodox, at times controversial, enthralling and emotionally exhausting. What is sure, though, is that it has been one hell of a ride.
The opening match of this year’s Cup of Nations was a story of close but not close enough, as they drew with Congo in Group A. Becker’s side had taken the lead through Middlesborough’s Emilio Nsue, though their ascendancy was kept in check by Bifouma Koulossa’s goal.
Their next match was uninspiring, it was the maiden stalemate of the Cup of Nations, as they played out a battling draw with Burkina Faso to keep their hopes of progression into the knockout phase alive. Their adversaries had twice struck the woodwork but couldn’t score, meaning Equatorial Guinea would have to overcome the attentions of Gabon in their final Group encounter to advance.
Easier said than done though as Gabon were a frightening proposition. Yet the hosts refused to be daunted, refused to be intimidated by the pace and pedigree of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Borussia Dortmund attacker, the vibrancy and dynamism of Bordeaux midfielder Andre Poko and the unanimously sound defending of Bruno Ecuele Manga, of Cardiff City.
It was, perhaps, the turning point. Becker’s men triumphed courtesy of goals from Javier Balboa and Salvador Iban, a victory Becker described as a “Cinderella story”.
Then dawned the controversy, the conspiracy theories. The tiny oil-rich nation’s victory over Tunisia in the quarter-finals was as controversial as it was thrilling. It is fair to say the hosts were not expecting much. What they got, however, was simply incredible.
Ahmed Akaichi looked to have put Tunisia into the last four when he turned in Hamza Mathlouthi's cross. The hosts, ranked 96 places below their opponents, sent it to extra time when Javier Balboa netted an injury-time penalty after Ali Maaloul was harshly ruled to have fouled Ivan Bolado. And Balboa scored the winner with a fantastic free-kick from 25 yards.
The game ended with ugly scenes as both sets of officials and players clashed in the 120th minute, with security getting involved, and at the final whistle some Equatorial Guinea fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate a famous win.
Thursday night, Equatorial Guinea will hope, will be slightly different. Not in the fact that the hosts emerged victors, or that they had secured progression, but that the manner of the potential triumph will be much more civil. Ghana will present a much more arduous proposition, you imagine, but the tiny oil-rich nation, after an unorthodox journey to the African Cup of Nations semi-final, one game away from the final, is dreaming of its moment in the spotlight after a Cinderella story.