Three years before it was selected as a co-host for this year's African Cup of Nations, Equatorial Guinea was the prospective scene of the "Wonga Coup", the laughably inept attempt by a gang of mercenaries, including ex-SAS man Simon Mann, to seize control, install a new president and get rich. They got as far as Zimbabwe, were arrested and extradited, and Mann spent two years in the infamous Black Beach prison.
This month, President Obiang, the man the mercenaries could not touch, will welcome some of the Premier League's most celebrated footballers to his country. The first game of the tournament is in Bata, Equatorial Guinea's biggest city, on 21 January, but the big names who are competing in the tournament – Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and Demba Ba among them – have already joined their respective squads.
The African Nations, first held in 1957, predates the European Championship by three years. It is a splendid football tournament that has, thankfully, survived the onslaught of European club managers harvesting the best footballers in Africa and then complaining incessantly when they depart for a month (a practice that at last seems to be on the wane). But that is not to say all is well.
The host country has little football heritage and few, if any, recognised players. The captain, Bodipo (above), is registered to Deportivo La Coruña in the Spanish second division but has been out on loan recently, and he has the best CV in the squad. It is said the only way Equatorial Guinea were ever going to play in the African Nations was by hosting it.
In that respect, they are not dissimilar to Qatar, Fifa's disastrous choice to stage the 2022 World Cup. Like Qatar, Equatorial Guinea is a football minnow and, like Qatar, is not big on democracy. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang ousted his uncle in 1979 in a bloody coup and is routinely cited as one of the worst offenders in Africa when it comes to human rights.
However, also like Qatar, Equatorial Guinea does have lots of oil. Unfortunately for the people of the country, the third-smallest by land mass in continental Africa, they do not get to see much benefit. Unicef reports are depressing in the extreme: 20 per cent of children die before the age of five; 60 per cent of the population live in poverty.
By anyone's estimation, a major international football tournament is not what the people of Equatorial Guinea need – they need clean drinking water and basic health provision – but a major international football tournament is what they are getting, none the less.
In comparison to Equatorial Guinea, co-host Gabon looks like Sweden, despite being an autocracy where the previous president Omar Bongo ruled for 42 years and, upon his death in 2009, was succeeded by his son. Clearly, in the developing world there cannot be the same expectations about democracy as in the West. However, the fear for the African Nations is that the tournament, held every two years, has now become a prop for oil-rich nations with dubious track records.
In 2010, the tournament was held in Angola, a disastrous decision given the attack on the Togo team bus which left three dead. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has switched the tournament to an odd-number cycle, which means the next one will be held a year from now. It was originally planned to be in – drum roll – Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. The fall of the Gaddafi regime caused CAF to change its mind, although the fact it was previously regarded a suitable host tells you everything you need to know about CAF's criteria.Reuse content