Equatorial Guinea’s Nsue stealing hearts at AFCON
EQUATORIALGuinea are leaving nothing to chance, even if that is what brought them here. While most of Esteban Becker’s squad train on an unassuming five-a-side pitch by a spot of wasteland outside Bata, their two prize assets have their feet up in the team hotel. Javier Balboa, the rangy former Real Madrid forward, is upstairs recuperating and Emilio Nsue has been told to take it easy too. It is Nsue, the Middlesbrough wing-back, who has stolen hearts at this Africa Cup of Nations.
Chosen as captain by Becker despite having won only two caps before this month, Nsue has been deployed as makeshift centre-forward in this Heath Robinson contraption of a team and scored the tournament’s first goal 16 minutes into the match against Republic of Congo last weekend. Victory against Gabon last night would mean progression to the quarter-finals for the last-minute host country and could, for this Mallorca-born footballer, lead to an unlikely homecoming too.
“This is the country of my father. My colour” – he points at his forearm – “everything, is from here,” says Nsue. “My surname is very common and the people recognise that I am from here, part of the country.”
Identity politics have been a big issue around the Equatorial Guinea side.
The nation has a questionable history of naturalising footballers – around 25 Brazil-born players have been capped in the past 13 years, many allegedly taking money to do so and some said to have played under the cover of local names. The Congo coach, Claude Le Roy, once referred to Equatorial Guinea’s team as the “United Nations” and was critical again after the sides’ meeting in Bata. The country has been a pariah within African football and its own public found it hard to warm to the revolving door of imports, too. But Nsue explains that things have changed during Becker’s short time – a month – in charge.
“I respect Le Roy,” he says. “But he spoke about the team as it was last time [in 2012, when Equatorial Guinea and Gabon co-hosted the tournament].
“I don’t think he can say the same now, because the 23 players are from Equatorial Guinea. I think Becker changed the squad around, because the people of this country want to see their own players from here.”
The roar that greeted his goal against Congo will not be forgotten by those present and spoke of a united purpose. But things could have been different. Highly rated enough to be linked with Chelsea while coming through at Mallorca, and a competent player in La Liga until his move to Teesside last summer, Nsue seemed at one point to be on track for a more exalted stage.
“I played for Spain at every youth level,” he says. “We won the Uefa Under-21 Championship in 2011 and the Olympic Games came the next year. There were 30 people on the list and I wasn’t on it. After that I decided I wanted a new experience.”
He had already met with Equatorial Guinea officials, who had hoped he would play in the 2012 tournament. “I spoke all the time with the federation here, but its president at the time came to Mallorca to speak with me and I didn’t like the way he did it. I preferred not to come. I didn’t agree with his ideas about football and life. He was a little arrogant with me.”
A change at the top, allied with that non-selection for the London Games, led to an about-face. “The decision was difficult but at the same time easy. My head said Spain and my heart said Equatorial Guinea, more or less. I’m happy with it and would do the same thing again.”
It was not a path available to Spain team-mates such as Juan Mata, David de Gea, Thiago Alcântara, Bojan Krkic and Javi Martínez. “They said I was crazy,” laughs Nsue. “But they know a lot of people love me here. Every time we come here the people go mad. You can see it for yourself.”
He has only been here four times, all to represent the ‘National Lightning’. But if the country has been bogged down in eligibility disputes in the past, he has been part of the problem. Nsue’s second cap, in a World Cup qualifier against Cape Verde two years ago, brought a hat-trick and a 4-3 win. He then played in a 2-1 defeat against the same opponents, only for the Confederation of African Football to discover that his paperwork had been completed incorrectly. Equatorial Guinea were given two 3-0 losses. Nsue’s story could have been over, but this discrepancy came from eagerness rather than skulduggery.
“I haven’t forgotten those goals and nor has the country,” he says. “For CAF and Fifa, well, they don’t count. I gave my papers in very quickly and the federation needed more time to do everything. I said I was eager to play, they said: ‘Yes, give us the papers, quick.’ It was 50 per cent my fault and 50 per cent theirs.”
He could not have expected such a swift change in fortunes and is enjoying leading a quickly assembled squad that contains a number of part-time players and some who play in the tiny local league. A few have day jobs and one, whose identity the local football federation is reluctant to put on record, is a commander in the army.
“It’s been difficult because I actually didn’t know all the players – exactly who was who – but little by little, over two weeks, we’ve got to know one another,” he says. “I am captain but Becker says that he needs our help with everything. Balboa and I are the senior players but our job is to make others confident. A lot of the players are amateur; just three or four of us have real experience.”
You would not have known it during their first two games in which the 17-year-old defender Diosdado Mbele, who plays for the Malabo-based side Leones Vegetarianos, was among several to perform with exceptional composure. A similar showing against Gabon and perhaps Nsue would finally be able to visit Ebibeyin, the town on the Cameroun border where his father was born. The Group A runners-up will play their quarter-final there and the potential piquancy is inescapable.
“My father left Ebebiyín for work opportunities, and then he met my mother in Spain. It’s a story of love, not politics. I still have family – a lot of cousins – in Ebebiyín,” he says, breaking off to ask about his interlocutors’ own experiences. “It’s nice there? And the stadium? Have people been at the games?”
Yes it is, and yes they certainly have. The infamous Equatoguinean president, Obiang Nguema, flew in for the first set of games there last Sunday. He is known to dislike football but did the rounds early in the tournament and spoke to Nsue and his team-mates before the Congo game.
“The president came inside the dressing room before the game and said: ‘Good luck, this is important for the people of the country’, and that he was looking forward to it.”
Another to have offered positive thoughts is Aitor Karanka, his manager at Middlesbrough. Nsue’s adventure is coming at a price: he is missing a sizeable chunk of their promotion push and was 3,500 miles away when they shocked Manchester City in the FA Cup on Saturday.
“It’s difficult for Boro and for me,” he says. “This is my country and a lot of people here have waited for me, but also there are lots of games in England. Karanka helped me and said he understood. He has called me before every game.
“We can only go on the pitch and show everyone what we have. That’s it. No more words, just the game.”
They are words from a man who is comfortable that the country for which he speaks is his own.
•Culled from The Guardian of London.