Football: Balboa is an Equatoguinean hero from afar

Javier Balboa of Equatorial Guinea celebrates after scoring against Tunisia in their quarter-final soccer match of the 2015 African Cup of Nations in Bata Jan 31, 2015. Balboa's two-goal performance in the match, along with his stellar play in t
Javier Balboa of Equatorial Guinea celebrates after scoring against Tunisia in their quarter-final soccer match of the 2015 African Cup of Nations in Bata Jan 31, 2015. Balboa's two-goal performance in the match, along with his stellar play in the tournament, have made him a national hero. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea (AFP) - Javier Balboa may have only first visited the country of his parents birth in 2007. But the Spain-born winger's goals have made him a national hero, as they have helped Equatorial Guinea secure an Africa Cup of Nations semi-final against Ghana in Malabo on Thursday.

"I've always felt very loved in the country," said Balboa, who plays for Portuguese club Estoril, in an interview with AFP.

"Obviously, scoring two goals (against Tunisia in a 2-1 quarter-final victory)... I became the reference for the public, but it's a team job."

Balboa, 29, also scored a penalty against Gabon and is joint leading scorer in the tournament, with Tunisian Ahmed Akaichi and Congolese Thievy Bifouma on three goals each.

Born in Madrid to Equatoguinean parents, Balboa says it is nice to "play where you are loved, and here (Equatorial Guinea) I feel very loved".

But his relationship with Equatorial Guinea is tenuous. He does not speak the vernacular of this small former Spanish colony.

"I am sorry because my parents always spoke Spanish, but it was the music and the African atmosphere at home," he recalled.

He explains his tardiness in first visiting Equatorial Guinea - to make his debut for the national team - as being down to his parents reluctance to move from Spain.

"I never had the opportunity to come here because my parents have always remained in Spain."

Vice-captain of the "National Thunder" behind Middlesbrough striker Emilio Nsue, Balboa is among the oldest players in the squad.

And Equatorial Guinea, late replacements as hosts when Morocco pulled out over the Ebola epidemic, have exceeded expectations to set up a semi-final with four-time champions Ghana.

After Group A draws with Congo Brazzaville and Burkina Faso, they defeated Gabon to finish second behind the Congolese and reach the knockout stages.

They then shocked Tunisia by coming from behind to win 2-1 in a match remembered most for a controversial stoppage-time penalty that Balboa converted.

He scored the winner 12 minutes into extra-time by superbly flighting a free kick into the roof of the net. "It's been a great joy," said Balboa.

"As the head of state (President Teodoro Obiang) said, we are already the country's heroes.

"It's amazing. The result exceeded expectations.

"In the group stage, nobody was counting on us, and before the last match against Gabon (2-0), everyone thought that we would be eliminated.

"Recalling the penalty incident that revolved around a clash between Ivan Bolado and Hamza Mathlouthi, Balboa said: "Maybe there was no penalty but, hey, these sort of situations happen every weekend in the best leagues in the world."

He has made six appearances for Estoril this season. "I had some muscle injury, I broke a finger and the new coach trusted other players," said Balboa.

Equatorial Guinea coach Esteban Becker said that Balboa was growing as a player the longer their interest in the tournament lasted.

"It was not good at first, but Javier grew from match to match," the Argentina-born coach told AFP. "He has many qualities, but I asked him to run more.

"And now he runs well, fights and plays better. He enjoys the national team and when the ball is at his feet, he is magic."