Sam Wallace: A poverty-stricken people don't need the wonga cup

The tournament has become the target of oil-rich nations in need of a PR stunt

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The Independent Online

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 the 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 already the big names who are competing in the tournament – Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and Demba Ba among them – have 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.

Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play their group games for Ivory Coast in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital, which is located by a volcano on the island of Bioko off the mainland. Ivory Coast are competing in their 19th African Nations. As for the Equatorial Guinea team, this is their first participation.

The host country has little football heritage and few, if any, recognised players. The captain, Bodipo, is registered to Deportivo La Coruña in the Spanish second division but has been out on loan recently, and he has arguably 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 finals. Like Qatar, Equatorial Guinea is a football minnow and like Qatar, it 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 lovely oil. Unfortunately for the people of the country, the third smallest by land mass in continental Africa, they do not get to see much of the benefits. The 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, albeit an autocracy where the previous president Omar Bongo ruled for 42 years and, upon his death in 2009, was succeeded by his son. In terms of football, the country has a better record than its small neighbour. Gabon have qualified four times for the African Nations, making the quarter-finals in 1996.

Clearly, in the developing world there cannot be the same expectations about democracy that there are in the West. However, the fear for the African Nations is that the tournament, held every two years, has now become the target of oil-rich nations with dubious track records and in need of a PR stunt.

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 about Libya, although the fact that it was previously regarded as a suitable host tells you everything you need to know about CAF's criteria. The 2013 tournament has been moved to South Africa; Morocco has 2015 and Libya is in the running to get 2017. For any leader with a reputation to launder it is not a bad option.

As ever in English football, the discussion surrounding the African Nations centres upon how much Chelsea will miss Drogba's goals, whether Manchester City will be the same without Yaya Touré or whether Arsenal will even notice Marouane Chamakh has gone. Unfortunately there is rather more at stake for the people of Equatorial Guinea.

It was widely reported last year that President Obiang's son, Teodoro, had ordered a £250m yacht of the kind Roman Abramovich owns. When it was pointed out that his official government salary is just £4,400 a month the conclusion was that he must have acquired the funds from elsewhere. Presumably the same source that allowed him to buy his £22m mansion in Malibu, California.

The hapless men under Mann's command who failed to oust President Obiang were right about one thing: there is wonga in Equatorial Guinea. And no doubt this will be another interesting tournament, with the failure of many of Africa's traditional football powers giving the opportunity to see some less well-known players and teams. But don't be blind to the real scandal perpetrated on the people who live there.

McEachran will learn if he is loaned

There are precisely 10 months between the ages of the older Jack Wilshere and Josh McEachran, the two young footballers who would one day be the centre of England's midfield.

This time last year, Wilshere was halfway through a brilliant breakthrough season at Arsenal, having been on loan at Bolton the previous season. He has missed this season with injury but when he does come back it will be to Arsenal's first team.

By contrast, McEachran has been all but ignored by Andre Villas-Boas this season. He needs to go on loan this month. All players develop at different speeds – and McEachran, 19 in March, is still very young – but Wilshere's progress is instructive.

The Chelsea man has to start playing games.

FA must fear Di Canio's little quirks

Whatever Paolo Di Canio, the FA Cup giant-killing manager of Swindon Town, does in English football, he will still be regarded by many as at best a Mussolini sympathiser, with a tattoo in honour of the dictator, and at worst a paid-up fascist, given his "salutes" to Lazio fans.

He had also used his column in the Corriere dello Sport to rail against racism and claimed in an interview with The Independent on Sunday last month that he had never voted for a far-right politician.

Di Canio suffered serious panic attacks as a young player, had a debilitating fear of flying and is interested in pagan rituals.

The Football Association must live in eternal fear of ever have to charge him with something serious. It will take more than 115 pages to sort it out.

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