By Peter Staunton
World champions Spain will this week relax in the wondrous surroundings of the USD$830 million (€616m) Sipopo resort on the outskirts of Equatorial Guinea's capital city Malabo ahead of their high-profile friendly on Saturday night.
The paradise hideaway was opened in June 2011, in time for the 17th African Union summit, and boasts a private beach, 52 villas overlooking the ocean, a heliport as well as a state-of-the-art conference centre.
Awash with oil profits, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has overseen lavish spending in an attempt to portray a positive image of the tiny former Spanish colony in west Africa.
The clash between the world's No.1 ranked team and the side coached by former Spain international Andoni Goikoetxea has been hailed as "the most important day in our sporting history" by the government's official press bureau. Minister of Youth and Sports, Francisco Pascual Obama Asue, also disclosed that Spain had waived any appearance fee due to the "excellent cultural relationship" between the two nations.
However, Spain's short stay will reveal to them only one side of Equatorial Guinea; the modern Aeropuerto Malabo, the pristine highways, the Sipopo resort and the high-spec El Nuevo Estadio de Malabo, where Saturday's game is scheduled to take place.
Out of sight lies the darker heart. Despite a GDP per capita to rival Italy and Spain, 75 per cent of the country's population of around 700,000 live on less than $1 (€0.75) a day. The basic infrastructure and everyday reality for the majority, far from what is put in front of the eyes of visiting dignitaries and VIPs, is grim, according to campaigners.
"I personally challenge Vicente del Bosque, or any of his players, to jump the protocol, get into a taxi, get out of that area and see the real Malabo," Tutu Alicante, the executive director of human rights group EG Justice, told Goal.
President Obiang has made consistent attempts to improve his cultural standing in this respect and found willing recipients; 2012's hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations, as well as his patronage of the Unesco-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in Life Sciences, are recent examples.
Alicante believes that the Spanish Football Federation, the RFEF, is the latest body endorsing the controversial regime by accepting an invitation to play a match there. "The Spanish team has agreed to go and legitimise [the current regime]; to whitewash their image," he said.
Sensitive to the propaganda implications, Spain's players are, according to AS, refusing to be photographed with political figures in a departure from other overseas trips, although Del Bosque may come under pressure to do so.
Obiang, 71, is the longest-serving head of state in the world, having usurped his uncle in a bloody coup d'etat in 1979. Since then, he has consolidated his power, constructed an organisation packed with family members and amended the constitution to allow him to continue his rule.
Equatorial Guinea's vast wealth derived from natural resources gives the impression of a country riding high. Its GNI (Gross Net Income) per capita is the highest in Africa, 83 times that of Burundi in last place. Its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has risen over 5,000 per cent in 21 years. But the vast oil reserves have not enriched the lives of many inhabitants.
Infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world, according to the UN. Access to clean drinking water is estimated to be available to less than 50% of the population. Equatorial Guinea is ranked at 161 of 179 countries by French-based pressure group Reporters Without Borders and its United Nations Human Development Index rank is 136th in the world - this takes into account life expectancy, literacy, standard of living and quality of life.
International human rights watchdog Freedom House has highlighted the detention of dissidents while the notorious Black Beach prison is regarded as the worst in Africa.
Tickets for the game went on sale this week at prices ranging from 5,000 CFA ($10) to 75,000 CFA ($150). Obiang's son, Teodorin, the country's vice-president and renowned as a heavy spender, this week promised a bonus of $5m to the members of the national team for beating Spain, with $50,000 pledged for each goal scored.
The move has angered anti-government campaigners almost as much as the Spanish decision to be hosted by the Obiang administration. "The money of Equatorial Guinea should be benefiting the people of Equatorial Guinea. They need that money much more," said Alicante.
"You need Fifa to understand that this is a rogue regime. There is nothing to justify the Spanish team going to play in Equatorial Guinea."