Comment: With Equatorial Guinea's appalling human rights record, why were Spain playing there?

One has sympathy with the Spain players, forced to confront difficult issues

There is a fine new book by the Scottish journalist Graham Hunter charting the remarkable progress of the all-conquering Spain team that begins with the antagonism of the Euro 2008 qualification camp and charts the three tournament wins that ensued.

For the English reader, it is full of details and memories best gathered by an embedded, Spanish-speaking reporter. Like the chronicling of the campaign to get rid of Luis Aragones in 2008 because of his decision to drop Raul. “A clueless coach and a bunch of characterless players,” was the newspaper El Pais’s summary of the situation in September 2007.

Aragones is, of course, badly tainted by his offensive description of Thierry Henry. In terms of the team he built for Euro 2008, and the style he developed, he could not have been more right; nor his detractors more wrong.

What Hunter captures best – and I’m still racing through his book – is the camaraderie among this gifted bunch of players. He writes that the squad’s informal get-togethers during Euro 2008 were held in the suite of Joan Capdevila, who had been randomly assigned the biggest in the hotel. So big he found it unnerving and ended up asking Santi Cazorla to sleep in one of the adjoining bedrooms.

As an account of the greatest players in their nation’s football history, the Spanish football association (RFEF) should be very grateful to Hunter. Goodness knows, they need the help. Their decision to play a friendly on Saturday in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s worst offenders when it comes to human rights, is up there with some of the most wrong-headed decisions made by a sporting federation.

Whatever, you may ask, would the Spanish FA see in the oil-rich non-democratic former Spanish colony, where much of the population remain trapped in poverty, controlled by a famously wealthy elite? Assuming the same trend in factors influencing major football decisions in recent years, you would have to say that the clue is in the oil and the wealth.

The United Nations human development index claims that less than half the population of Equatorial Guinea has access to clean drinking water and that 20 per cent of children in the country die before the age of five. The pressure group Transparency International has placed Equatorial Guinea among the top 12 most corrupt states.

These are not issues that can simply be ignored when one is selecting the opposition for what is arguably the greatest international football team of all time. Although it is of much less importance, you also have to wonder about the value from a football perspective of the world champions playing the 119th-placed side in the Fifa rankings seven months before a World Cup finals. It finished 2-1 to Spain, who fielded a second string against a home team featuring many naturalised South Americans.

There might have been a shred of credibility to this sorry saga if the RFEF had at least acknowledged that this was a country, under the objectionable President Obiang, which had serious human rights issues. But, extraordinarily, Angel Villar, the RFEF president, refused even to discuss the situation in the build-up to the match.

“I am not going to answer that question,” he said when asked last week why Spain were playing there. “You have the right to ask it and I have the right not to answer it.” Three of the parties represented in the Spanish parliament asked for the game to be cancelled. The RFEF claimed it consulted the Spanish government. The government said it had nothing to do with the match.

The RFEF says that games against Angola and Gabon fell through and that they needed African opposition as a prelude to their friendly against South Africa in Johannesburg tomorrow. Gabon, who co-hosted last season’s African Cup of Nations with Equatorial Guinea, say there was no proposal to play a game. The RFEF claims that it will not receive a fee for playing in Equatorial Guinea. The country’s exiled leader Severo Moto claims the RFEF was paid €15m (£12.5m) for the game. What a mess.

It is not the policy of pressure groups such as Amnesty International to call for boycotts. If anything Amnesty believes high-profile sporting events in countries with poor human rights record can shine a light on abuses. That relies on those involved having the courage to speak out about what they encounter and not permitting their hosts to censor what they see of the lives of ordinary people.

A spokesman for Amnesty said last week that Spain should go to Equatorial Guinea with “their eyes wide open”. “Equatorial Guinea is rife with human rights problems. Political activists and government critics are routinely harassed and arbitrarily arrested and detained. Freedom of expression and of the press continue to be restricted. 

“This game is a chance for some of Spain’s stars to show how brave they are willing to be. If the likes of Juan Mata, Alvaro Negredo and Santi Carzola chose to make a stand and used the opportunity to echo Amnesty’s concerns it could make a real difference to the thousands of people who are persecuted there. It would be very difficult for President Obiang to ignore the world champions.”

One has sympathies with the Spanish players and coaches who find themselves in an absurd situation not of their own making. They should not have been there in the first place. But as ever, it is they who are the public face of the team, and they who are forced to confront the difficult issues.

Predictably, the players will reason that with the defence of their World Cup on the horizon, they are best served by not rocking the boat. Vicente Del Bosque refused to discuss human rights on Saturday. “We are only sports people,” he said, “only footballers and we’re not here to give prestige, nor strengthen, nor overthrow, nor go against anyone.”

Funnily enough it was Villar who appointed Aragones and stood by him in spite of the hostility in the press when he left out Raul in Euro 2008 qualifying. That was the beginning of the unprecedented success that Del Bosque now presides over. It just goes to show how one good decision does not necessarily lead to another. On this occasion, Villar, the RFEF, Spanish football got it completely wrong.

One man’s game management is another’s cheating

It is interesting to hear Roy Hodgson encourage his England team to take a leaf out of Chile’s book and learn how to – and this is one of football’s great euphemisms – “take the sting out the game” when an opponent is in a period of ascendancy. “Breaking the game up” is another polite phrase for what is really a big dose of gamesmanship.

On Friday night at Wembley, Chile were excellent at slowing England down. Whether it was a judicious foul, too unremarkable for a booking, or an extended period of treatment for an injury, they did all they could. Many England managers before Hodgson have bemoaned their own players’ naïvety when it comes to this, and facing a World Cup in South America, there has rarely been a greater imperative.

But this is England, where going to ground too lightly is not tolerated under any circumstances, not even when a player draws contact.

Once again we want two incompatible qualities in our footballers. Ashley Young was grabbed by Markel Bergara when he won that now-notorious penalty against Real Sociedad but was later vilified. Was he being streetwise, in the way Hodgson is encouraging his players to be, or was he cheating?

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model of a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution