Gender controversy follows Equatorial Guinea

Of the 16 teams that will play in the FIFA Women's World Cup, first-time qualifier Equatorial Guinea might be the most unknown, and the most interesting.

It's fast. It's strong. It was the first side to arrive in Germany, in mid-May, and an unusual controversy followed it.

Last November, after Nigeria beat Equatorial Guinea 4-2 in the African Championships final, the Nigeria Football Federation filed a protest with the Confederation of African Football (CAF), accusing Equatorial Guinea of using two men. According to news services, Nigeria singled out captain Genoveva Anonma and striker Salimata Simpore because of their leg strength and skill level.

Ghana did not protest formerly, but earlier in the tournament voiced suspicions about those two players as well as Simpore's sister, Biliguisa. Ghana defender Diana Amkomah was widely quoted as saying, "You only need to have physical contact with them on the pitch to know they are men."

The Equatorial Guinea Football Federation, in a statement, called the accusations "totally unfounded" and "evidence of an inferiority complex" from competitors jealous of the country's progress in women's soccer over the past decade. The CAF promised to investigate but has yet to release any findings.

Gender questions about Equatorial Guinea have floated around for years, most notably at the 2008 African Championships, when the women's team shocked Nigeria in the semifinals on its way to the title. Until then, Nigeria had won the tournament every year since its inception in 1998.

Anonma, who also plays for a German club team, Jena, defended herself in an interview with Bild, a German daily newspaper.

"I first heard these accusations back in 2006 and 2008," said Anonma, now 22. "I have already been [gender] tested, which I find offensive."

Marcus Etzel, the president of her club team, told Bild, "It's completely absurd. Of course Genoveva is a woman, and we are very happy she plays for us."

That Equatorial Guinea can be competitive in international women's soccer at all is remarkable. Wedged into the west coast of central Africa between Cameroon and Gabon, Equatorial Guinea is one of Africa's tiniest countries by size (about 11,000 square miles) and population (about 650,000, or slightly more than Baltimore, Md.).

It has never qualified for an Olympic Games, and until now never made a World Cup, either. It is the smallest nation ever in a women's World Cup field. But the team's rise has been swift since it began international play in 2000. With a roster fortified by more than half a dozen players born in Brazil, it is 61st in the latest FIFA world rankings, its highest slot ever.

The women's team had been eliminated in group play in the 2006 African Championship and turned back by South Africa in a 2007 Olympic qualifier before breaking through at the 2008 Africa Championships, which it hosted. Advancing from group play undefeated, it went on to beat Nigeria 1-0 in the semifinals and South Africa 2-1 in the final. Anonma led the tournament with six goals, outscoring every team except South Africa by herself.

Last year, with a runner-up finish at the African Championships, the Equatorial Guinea women's team earned a World Cup berth before the men's team. The women's team will play in rugged Group D with 2007 World Cup runner-up Brazil, Norway, which has never failed to advance from group play, and Asian champion Australia.

Since qualifying, the women's team changed coaches. Jean-Paul Mpila's contract expired and a Brazilian, Marcelo Maria Frigerio, will run the team through the end of the World Cup. It also endured the death of defender Teclaire Bille Esono, 22, in an auto accident last December.

"We're one of the debutants, and though we don't know much about the teams we'll be up against, we're going to prepare and do the very best we can," Bonifacio Manga Obiang, president of the Equatorial Guinea Football Federation, said to fifa.com. "Like any other team we want to win, and I hope we can do that in our opening game against Norway. We're very happy just to have qualified."