The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) consulted Spain’s government before agreeing to play Equatorial Guinea in Malabo on Saturday, with the country’s administration giving its approval for the encounter to go ahead. Spain will be the first European nation to play in the West African state. Amnesty International and the Human Rights Association of Spain (APDHE) have both requested that FIFA, football’s world governing body, call the match off in the face of “kidnapping, torture and executions” under the current rule of Teodoro Obiang. Jacinto Lara, who heads the APDHE, said: “[RFEF president Ángel María] Villar cannot sit at the same table as Obiang, a dictator who commits abhorrent crimes and who is seeking to make political use of the world champions.”
Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel García-Margallo, was in the United States on Wednesday and was unavailable for comment. His colleague, Florentino Llera, referred AS to the Ministry’s Office of Diplomatic Information, whose spokesperson maintained: “The game in Malabo is not the responsibility of the Spanish government; it is solely in the power of the Federation and outside of the management of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” However, reliable sources have corroborated that the RFEF consulted the government, who gave the friendly the green light. At the same time, the Secretary of State for International Cooperation and Ibero-America, Jesús Gracia, was in Malabo on Monday, meeting with several members of Obiang’s family and government (including the minister Celestino Obiang) as part of a “technical visit” to the country.
Asked about Gracia’s presence in Equatorial Guinea, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that he was there “to discuss education and healthcare, not football.” She continued: “Spain maintains diplomatic relations with Guinea. The Secretary of State is no longer there and will not be attending Saturday’s match.” Further, high-level government sources have reiterated: “The match in Malabo is the result of a chain of errors. First, Spain were going to play in Gabon, then Angola, and have ended up in Guinea on the way to [Tuesday’s friendly against] South Africa.”
Meanwhile, the RFEF itself maintains: “People want to turn a sporting matter into a political one, and they’re managing it. But if Spain are playing in Equatorial Guinea, it isn’t to pander to Obiang, but to give the Guinean people something to cheer about and to provide financial help to the country’s football federation, which is penniless. That’s why we’re going for free.” The Federation’s altruistic motives for the fixture have failed to convince certain political parties and human rights organisations, who have branded the match ‘ignominious’: “There’s only one thing worse than playing there, and that’s the world champions having their photos taken with the dictator,” said Lara.
However, as AS revealed on Wednesday, a high-ranking RFEF official has assured this newspaper: “There will be no photos or receptions with Obiang. Our contact with him will be limited to the match, if he is in attendance.” Most of the players in the Spain squad are members of various NGOs, particularly those dedicated to child welfare. Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta work with UNICEF, while Fernando Llorente has previously travelled to lend his support to the most deprived areas of Africa and Asia. There are plenty of other examples. Posing with Obiang would be an inexplicable move – they won’t.