PAUL LOGOTHETIS, AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — Spain’s national team will travel to Equatorial Guinea for a friendly game, and the country’s football federation won’t say why.
The decision to play in the former Spanish colony has drawn the ire of the country’s opposition in exile group in Madrid, and raised questions about what benefit the World Cup champions expect to get from playing a team ranked 119th in the world.
The federation said it will not be paid any extra fees to play. When directly asked why the game is being played, federation president Angel Maria Villar refused to answer.
“I won’t answer this question,” Villar said Thursday. “Ask anything else, but I won’t respond to this one.”
Spanish players have reportedly refused to pose for photographs with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who is Africa’s longest serving strongman and accused of human rights violations and corruption.
Spain will become the first nation from outside Africa to play in Malabo since Obiang took power in 1979. Equatorial Guinea is coached by former Spain international Andoni Goikoetxea.
More than 14,000 people have joined the opposition group in calling for the match to be halted by signing a petition on change.org.
“The adequate decision for everyone, in our opinion, would be that the game is not celebrated,” the group said Thursday in a statement. “If not, Spain will pay a hefty bill for falling into this trap, and not just from an economic standpoint.”
Amnesty International, EG Justice and Human Rights Watch are among those who have criticized Obiang’s government over issues such as politically motivated arrests and lack of freedom of speech. Obiang, who seized power in a coup, has managed to be photographed alongside United States President Barack Obama while at the same time be accused of draining his nation’s oil wealth to fabulously enrich family and cronies while his people suffer in slums.
Equatorial Guinea has Africa’s highest per capita gross national income of nearly $18,000 a year, but more than 60 percent of the population living on less than $1 per day, according to the U.N. Development Assistance Framework. The country of about 700,000 people gained independence from Spain in 1968.
Spain striker Fernando Llorente was asked his opinion of the situation, but team spokeswoman Paloma Antoranz interjected and said the players would not answer questions on the topic.
That set off a tense back-and-forth between Antoranz and the journalist, as the Spanish federation spokeswoman made it clear that questions about the trip had already been addressed before the journalist asked if they did not live in a “free” country where such questions could be delivered.
After Antoranz finally relented, gazes shifted to Llorente who said: “I only want to talk about sport, everything else I don’t want to talk about it.”
Marc Bartra, who has been called up for the first time and has yet to play a game for Spain, and Raul Albiol also avoided talking about the situation in detail.
“We try to stay out of all this and to focus on the football. The country, its government, that is something apart,” Albiol said. “We’re here to play a friendly and nothing more.”
Spain defender Sergio Ramos was critical of another extended travel plan that will see the team return to South Africa for a friendly on Tuesday, its first trip to the country since it won the World Cup there in 2010.
“It’s clear that these long trips are not enjoyable for anybody,” Ramos said. “We can try new tactics heading into the World Cup which is always something positive.”
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