Equatorial Guinea wins over fans

AUGSBURG, Germany -- The stands had plenty of empty seats, but the media tribune did not. For once, the reporters were ahead of the curve.

Equatorial Guinea, one of the most obscure countries to qualify for a major international soccer tournament, put on a show in a bizarre but entertaining game Wednesday, winning over the crowd that had ventured to a stadium that will soon host its first men's Bundesliga games. The fans didn't care that Equatorial Guinea had three of its best players removed from the Women's World Cup, two due to persistent gender questions, one to nationality issues. They didn't care that the country's government was recently ranked among the 12 most corrupt in the world by watchdog Transparency International. They didn't care that many of the remaining players, though naturalized citizens, were born elsewhere, often in Brazil.

They didn't even care that most of the team's shots seemed as likely to hit a tunnel or even the roof of the steeply pitched Augsburg stadium as they were to hit the net. Equatorial Guinea played with the reckless abandon of an MLS or WPS All-Star Game but with equal effort on defense, outrunning Norwegian attackers and sliding to block shots.

And in the end, the fans gave the team a rousing ovation despite its 1-0 loss in a game that saw 49 shots, 26 from the upstarts, including 15 from the green-braided, quicksilver Genoveva Anonma.

"As a trainer, I despair when I see these opportunities that are not used," said Equatorial Guinea coach Marcelo Maria Frigerio, himself Italian-born and Brazilian-schooled. "We could've scored four goals."

Anonma, the most accomplished player remaining from the Equatorial Guinea roster purge, took up a free-floating and free-shooting role, with many of her shots from long distance. She opened the second half by shooting from within the center circle, just a touch or two after kickoff.

The fans gave an excited "ohhhhhh!" when an Equatorial Guinea player found herself in space, especially after some of Anonma's nifty stutter-steps. Then a disappointed "awwwww!" when the resulting shot or cross went 20 yards wide of its target.

Norway fans were waving flags when the game started but didn't know what to make of the action between this exuberant African team and their own national side, with three starters coming into the game with less than 10 caps. The most experienced players by far were the defensive midfield tandem of Trine Ronning and Ingvild Stensland, each with more than 100 caps, and goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth, who bobbled several balls but was named player of the match for sheer volume of work (eight saves).

Early in the second half, a Norwegian breakthrough seemed inevitable. The signs of life from Norway's attack roused the team's fans from their shocked slumber, and "NOR-GE!" chants could be heard through the stadium.

But substitute Lene Mykjaland, a veteran of WPS play, was forced to limp off the field after inspiring the Norwegian attack. And Anonma got back into action. She turned a defender and shot just wide. She beat a defender to a through ball and had a shot, her 13th, saved by the onrushing Hjelmseth. The ball bounced tantalizingly wide on the ensuing corner kick.

Anonma's next shot, her 14th of the game, missed the far post by more than 10 yards.

Anonma, who has faced gender questions of her own, plays in Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga and scored 13 goals last season with FF USV Jena. Even with her European experience, Anonma had more exuberance than polish. With two players bearing down on her in her own end, she booted the ball out of play for a deep throw-in near the corner.

"Genoveva had some very good moments during the match," Frigerio said. "She wasn't really stable throughout the game. I think she has a lot more potential. But don't forget -- this is a World Cup, and it's an emotional thing. Because of the emotions, sometimes you lose your focus."

Her teammates also brought more speed and flash than skill and poise. A giveaway at the back nearly gave Norway a first-minute goal.

And the Norwegian breakthrough indeed came via a defensive breakdown. Goalkeeper Miriam failed to get to Leni Kaurin's cross as it rolled through the 6-yard box. Stensland fell, missing an easy tap-in, but Emilie Haavi was unmarked for the easy conversion in the 84th minute.

At last the Norwegian flags returned to public view among the crowd of 12,928, which continued to cheer and chant as Equatorial Guinea chased the equalizer by shooting even more frequently.

At the final whistle, Norwegian players quickly ran to applaud their fans. Equatorial Guinea players gathered in a circle for a couple of minutes. When they broke up and applauded the fans, the crowd rose for one last ovation for a team that surely will not win the World Cup but will be well worth the price of admission.