In November last year, Equatorial Guinea's footballing fortunes were in the doldrums. Ranked 119 in the world, the central African country had been thrown out of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for fielding an ineligible player in the qualifiers, and Nzalang Nacional fans seemed destined to face the beginning of the year without the prospect of live national team football.
But football being as unpredictable as it is, things took an unexpected and remarkable turn, and less than three months later, Equatorial Guinea has climbed an astonishing 69 places from their January ranking and are now considered the 49th best team in the world. Not only that, the Nzalang Nacional also secured a first-ever appearance in the semi-finals at the Cup of Nations, and they managed good results against several teams ranked higher than them at the time.
It all started when Morocco pulled out of hosting the continental tournament and the African confederation turned towards Equatorial Guinea's president Teodoro Obiang. After a meeting in November, CAF announced that the head of state had agreed to host the competition.
Preparations for the tournament though did not go as smoothly as local footballing officials had hoped and with less than a month to go before the tournament was meant to start, national team coach Andoni Goikoetxea was dismissed. Officials then turned to Argentine coach Esteban Becker, who had previously won the African Women's Championship with Equatorial Guinea's women's team.
The rest, as they say, is history. “Moving from 118 to 49 in the FIFA rankings was not by chance, luck or good fortune,” Becker explained to FIFA.com recently. “There was methodical, intelligent and planned work involved. Nothing was left to chance. There was method, much effort and players who played good football.”
Big points from big surprises
Five of the six matches the team played ensured them an increase in points towards the rankings, with the 2-1 extra-time victory against Tunisia in the quarter-finals securing the highest number of points, followed by the 2-0 victory against Gabon in their final group game. The three draws the team achieved at the finals – against Burkina Faso, Congo DR and Congo – also increased their tally and the 630.02 points they had in February saw them more than double the number of points from January (260).
Equatorial Guinea is as small as an ant, but has the strength of an elephant.
The Nzalang Nacional were undoubtedly the surprise package at the Africa Cup of Nations finals and even though they were hosts, few would have predicted that they would end up in the semi-finals – further than giants of African football like Algeria, Senegal or Mali. “We achieved this because from the minute we entered the field, before our opponents, we had a winning mentality," Becker explained. "We had the clear intention of winning.”
Becker concentrated his coaching on what he calls the four cornerstones of his football philosophy: Attack, defence, transition from attack to defence and the transition from defence to attack. He implemented a number of tactical exercises, focussing on a combination game, switching to high pressure in the attacking half.
Although he had less than 20 days and ten training sessions to prepare the squad, he did not allow that to be used as an excuse and he managed to put together a competitive team that could take on some of Africa's best. The majority of players the Argentine picked to do duty for the country were either semi-professionals from the local league or playing their football in the lower tiers of Spanish football.
The heart of the team
Holding the team together were experienced players like captain Emilio Nsue, who plays for Middlesbrough in the English Championship and former Real Madrid winger Javier Balboa, who scored three of the team's five goals at the finals. The two veterans shared four man-of-the-match awards during the competition.
Becker is confident that the future of football in the country is bright as long as officials continue along the path on which they embarked before hosting the Africa Cup of Nations finals. “There is a group of players that will help the sport grow if they sign for European clubs," Becker said. "But it is important that football officials not only care for those players, they also have to develop players within the country.
"This should take place by implementing a proper improvement plan of learning at a schools level. To do this, new structures have to be put in place. Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa and has a population of just one million.
"But with a programme and good planning, it can go far. It has its future in its own hands. Equatorial Guinea is as small as an ant, but has the strength of an elephant."