Equatorial Guinea's Nsue outshining star names at Cup of Nations

Victor Osimhen, Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane were perhaps the most likely bets to be top marksman at this year's Africa Cup of Nations, but the entirely unexpected name leading the scorers' charts in Ivory Coast has more goals than all of them combined.

AFP , Saturday 27 Jan 2024,
Equatorial Guinea s forward #10 Emilio Nsue celebrates scoring his team s third goal during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 group A football match between Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast at the Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium in Ebimpe, Abidjan. Photo: AFP

Emilio Nsue, the captain of unfancied Equatorial Guinea, goes into a last-16 tie with Guinea on Sunday after netting five times in the group stage.

If he keeps this up, he could break Ndaye Mulamba's record of nine in one AFCON for Zaire in 1974.

"I am ambitious, but to be honest I would sign a contract right now if it said I would be the top scorer," he smiled when that record was mentioned to him in an interview with AFP in Abidjan.

Nsue scored twice in a 4-0 win over the hosts in their final group game, having netted three in a 4-2 win over Guinea-Bissau, the first Cup of Nations hat-trick since 2008.

Ranked 18th in Africa, Equatorial Guinea -– population 1.7 million -– is no footballing hotbed.

But the Central African nation has made remarkable progress over the last decade, spurred on by hosting the AFCON in 2012 and again in 2015, when they reached the semi-finals.

- 'Strongest in all Africa' -

The current side, under softly-spoken coach Juan Micha, is undefeated since June 2022.

"The most important thing, our strong point, is the group, because we are playing almost eight or nine years together, so we are brothers," Nsue said.

"We don't have any superstar, but as a group I think we are the strongest in all Africa."

Nsue is certainly the closest thing they have to a superstar.

Born in Mallorca, he was in a Spain squad that won the Under-21 Euro in 2011 alongside David de Gea, Juan Mata and Thiago Alcantara.

But he opted to represent the country of his father's birth at senior level, at a time when he was playing regularly in La Liga for Mallorca.

"Equatorial Guinea came to me and said: 'Please, you have to come. You are going to be the captain. You are young but we think you are the future'," said Nsue.

"So I thought about that and about everything my father explained to me."

He didn't enjoy the best start, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-3 win over Cape Verde in 2013, only for Equatorial Guinea to be handed a 3-0 defeat because Nsue was, in fact, ineligible.

Yet Nsue, who idolised Samuel Eto'o growing up when the Cameroon legend played for Mallorca, is now a hero in the country.

"The people of Equatorial Guinea are really grateful towards him because you can see how much he loves his country," Micha told AFP.

"It is incredible to have a person like him and I hope he stays with us for a long time."

- Getting better with age -

However, he will turn 35 this year, so could this be his last AFCON?

"My hero is Cristiano Ronaldo. He is older than me. I care a lot about my body. I like to eat healthily. So for me I don't think it's going to be my last one because I feel better than when I was 20," Nsue said.

Much has been made of his versatility, as a player who was turned into a wing-back by Aitor Karanka at Middlesbrough, where he won promotion to the Premier League in 2016.

"After that, all the coaches said to me I could play everywhere. So last year I played as a central defender, a right-back, striker, midfielder," he said.

"But with my national team, these 12 years, I have played as a striker. Almost all my life I have played as a striker."

Nsue was one of seven members of Equatorial Guinea's line-up against Ivory Coast who were born in Spain, the former colonial power.

He is now playing club football in Spain for third-tier Intercity of Alicante, who took Barcelona to extra time in the Copa del Rey last season.

Nsue is in no hurry to leave his current surroundings, even if his profile has been boosted at the AFCON.

"I'm very happy. I'm scoring goals. For me it is not all about football," he said.

"The life in Alicante is very nice, the weather, for me at 34 years old that is important.

"You never know, maybe tomorrow somebody comes with an offer you can't refuse, but I don't really think about that."

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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Group A W D L P
2 1 0 7
Equatorial Guinea
2 1 0 7
Cote d Ivoire
1 0 2 3
Guinea Bissau
0 0 3 0
Group B W D L P
Cape Verde
2 1 0 7
0 3 0 3
0 2 1 2
0 2 1 2
Group C W D L P
3 0 0 9
1 1 1 4
1 1 1 4
0 0 3 0
Group D W D L P
2 1 0 7
Burkina Faso
1 1 1 4
1 0 2 3
0 2 1 2
Group E W D L P
1 2 0 5
South Africa
1 1 1 4
1 1 1 4
0 2 1 2
Group F W D L P
2 1 0 7
DR Congo
0 3 0 3
0 2 1 2
0 2 1 2