POLITICS IN SPORT

La Roja’s dangerous liaisons

The Spanish soccer team’s first-ever match in Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich dictatorship, raises ethical questions

Young boys in Equatorial Guinea play football on a dry field in Malabo.
Young boys in Equatorial Guinea play football on a dry field in Malabo.ALEXANDER JOE / AFP

Spain's world champion soccer team will make history on Saturday in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, when it plays a match in the former Spanish colony for the first time. The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) argues that the match is being played for no fee and with the aim of promoting the game, but is it a wise choice of venue? The African nation has been under the rule of dictator Teodoro Obiang for the past 34 years and is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, according to the most recent Transparency International report. Dissidence is ruthlessly crushed and a privileged elite share out the country's considerable oil wealth. The propaganda machine has been well-greased to make the most of the visit of the reigning world champion.

Once again, soccer is providing the excuse to ignore politics when doing so allows the avoidance of any responsibility over the defense of human rights. Sports governing bodies have always proclaimed their debatable concept of neutrality. "We will never get involved in politics of politicians, of race or religion; we are an apolitical organization responsible for the development of soccer. My role as president of Uefa is to organize the competition," said Michel Platini ceremoniously when various groups called for a boycott of the 2012 European Championship in Ukraine, who co-hosted the event with Poland, in protest at the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, who remains incarcerated today. It is a mantra oft-repeated by Fifa president Sepp Blatter and his predecessor, João Havelange, who was also president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation before and during the country's dictatorship.

But the history of Fifa decision-making casts doubt on this claim of neutrality. The 35th Fifa Congress in London, in 1966, awarded three future World Cups: West Germany 1974; Argentina 1978; and Spain 1982. Nobody was particularly concerned then about handing the biggest sporting event in the world to a country that had just seen its fifth military coup, and another that had been a dictatorship since 1939. Fate decreed that Argentina would win the World Cup on home soil, under the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla. Had Franco still been alive in 1982, he would have presided over the opening ceremony alongside Havelange.

Calls for boycott in Spain

EL PAÍS

Four political parties have called for a boycott of the friendly between La Roja and Equatorial Guinea. The Plural Left group, UPyD, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the Catalan leftists ERC believe the fixture represents the loaning of the side to Teodoro Obiang's "dirty propagandist game."

Emilio Olabarría of PNV said the match was "a manner of support" for a "genocidal" regime. "Soccer is more than soccer, unfortunately, and it has a symbolic value and one of moral legitimization," he argued.

The Obiang administration said the match was evidence of the "excellent relationship" between Spain and its former colony. Joan Tardá of ERC said it showed the "double morality of the Spanish government."

The match takes place just days after the Popular Party government for the first time sent a high-ranking official — the secretary of state for cooperation and IberoAmerica — on an official visit to Malabo.

Obiang's son, Teodorín, has promised the players a five-million-euro prize if the side wins.

The criteria for awarding World Cups has not changed since 1966, and there are plenty of suspicions surrounding Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 tournament in a desert country where summer temperatures reach 50ºC. The RFEF is responsible for selecting which teams La Roja plays in friendlies and states the principle consideration is a sporting one. Spain maintains diplomatic ties with Equatorial Guinea and is its third-largest trading partner after the US and Italy. So why ask sport to do something that diplomacy and commerce are not prepared to?

"The regime takes advantage of these events to portray an image of normality and so that people forget the oppression," says Wenceslao Mansogo, human rights secretary for the main opposition party tolerated in Equatorial Guinea, CPDS. "That La Roja is coming here is indecent on the part of Spain. It gives Obiang publicity. I like soccer, and there is a large following in this country, but this serves to mask reality."

In Equatorial Guinea, "human rights violations are systematic," Mansogo adds. "There is no type of liberty of expression, or of opinion or free movement within the country. The justice system does not work, there are arbitrary arrests and police and military abuses."

As dictatorships generally like to appear as anything other than such, Obiang organizes sham elections every seven years, with predictable results: in 2009 he gained 95 percent of the vote and in the last legislative elections in May of this year, his PDGE party won 99 of 100 seats in parliament and 54 of 55 elected senators.

The Spanish team is expected to be lodged in Sipopo, a luxury complex with a hotel, conference center, hospital, golf course and private beach built by Obiang at a cost of 580 million euros. There the players, staff and, more than likely, sports journalists will live in a bubble: it is almost impossible for a Spanish journalist to obtain a visa normally, especially during election periods.

I challenge any member of the RFEF to visit a normal neighborhood"

Sipopo reflects the enormous inequality in Equatorial Guinea and the policy of economic robbery practiced by a tiny elite close to those in power - the few people who are allowed to use the complex. The vast majority of the country's 736,000 inhabitants live in poverty and life expectancy is 52, despite Africa's highest per capita GDP level of almost 20,000 euros, according to a 2012 IMF estimate.

It is unlikely that Spain's players or anyone accompanying them will see the real Equatorial Guinea. "I challenge any member of the RFEF to break protocol, take a taxi and try to visit any normal neighborhood. They won't be able to. The police will stop them," says Tutu Alicante, president of US-based NGO EG Justice. Alicante says the match will only serve to legitimize the regime. "The government needs this type of event to present the image of a developing country and to distract the people from human rights violations and poverty."

With this in mind, would it be prudent for the RFEF to make a political or ethical exception when visiting a country like Equatorial Guinea? Can it be expected to reproach what politicians and businessmen who visit the country frequently do not? Has the RFEF's hierarchy considered using the opportunity to demand respect for human rights? Can we expect Iker Casillas, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta et al to make some gesture to this effect? Or will the policy of neutrality be evoked?

"The question is whether the federation accepts the principle that sports and politics have nothing to do with each other or not," says John Carlin, author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, which inspired the film Invictus. "If it accepts it, it doesn't matter if Spain plays in North Korea or Equatorial Guinea, which is a grotesque dictatorship. Suppose then that the war in Syria ends and Assad remains in power. Will they play there? If they did, it would be in line with this principle, but I think it would cause a certain level of controversy."