Equatorial Guinea began 2011 the way they hope to be playing next year: with the unfamiliar sensation of victory. The small African state, with a population under 700,000, will co-host the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, and have received something of an early fillip with a 17-place jump to 148th on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
A friendly win over Chad last month ended a run of ten successive defeats and marked the start of a new chapter for Nzalang Nacional, now under the tutelage of the much-travelled French coach Henri Michel.
Without any competitive matches before the start of next January’s tournament, the game against Chad continued a programme of friendlies designed to properly prepare the team for the event, with their next game coming against the Gambia. With a positive result, they will also hope to continue rising on the global ladder, having slumped to 165th in February - a long way off the country’s all-time high of 64th, which they achieved in early 2008.
With a win over Cameroon in the past to hang their hats on, the Equatoguineans have shown they are capable of pulling off some upsets, but Michel reckons it is an unusual process trying to get a side ready inside 12 months for a Cup Nations Cup kick-off. He has termed it a “commando mission”, the task given him to make the team competitive for the continental finals, which kick off in Bata on 21 January.
The leaders of the federation want to ensure that the team play well at the Nations Cup and get past the first round. It is a big objective, but we are going to do everything we can to get there.
With decades of experience it is a different type of task to the high-profile African jobs Michel has handled in the past, like holding the reins of Cameroon, Morocco, Tunisia and Côte d’Ivoire and at clubs like Zamalek and Raja Casablanca.
“I think it is a good challenge, a difficult challenge,” he recently said. “Although Equatorial Guinea have a low ranking, I want to use my experience to lead them forward. The leaders of the federation want to ensure that the team play well at the Nations Cup and get past the first round. It is a big objective, but we are going to do everything we can to get there.”
Equatorial Guinea are seeking more players from the country’s diaspora in Spain to strengthen their side. Among the latest are Raul Fabiani from Alcoyano and Iban Iyanga from Las Palmas. The country has also entered a U-23 side for the first time in the Men's Olympic Football Tournament qualifiers, where they play Nigeria in their first-round tie.
Michel says he soon intends to call a camp of all his foreign-based players, who will train in Spain together to give him an opportunity to see what quality is at his disposal. He estimates the majority of his team will come from European-based clubs, even if only a handful have been on the books of top sides.
Javier Balboa played at Real Madrid and Benfica, and is now at Albacete, and Rodolfo Bodipo was once at Deportivo but is now at Elche in Spain’s second tier. The pair are the biggest hopes for Equatorial Guinea and are likely to form a nucleus around which Michel will seek to build his side and guide them forward on their mission.