The teenage Equatorial Guinea defender already has a hard-man image, but he was so young when he made his Vegetarian Lions debut that he cannot recall his actual age
Kolo Toure has more than 100 caps for Cote d’Ivoire and is the senior, stalwart defender at the Africa Cup of Nations. His stellar club career has taken him to Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, and he has looked as good as ever in his country’s back four, guiding his younger team-mates in what will be his last appearance at this tournament.
But the most impressive youngster in any team’s back line is half Toure’s age. His club career so far starts and ends at the team with the best name in world football, Leones Vegetarianos (Vegetarian Lions), of Equatorial Guinea. Judging by his performances in Group A, he will not be staying long.
Diosdado Mbele Mba Mangue – known simply as Mbele, after his late uncle – has been a revelation in the host nation’s draws against Congo and Burkina Faso. He made his international debut for the Nzalang (Lightning) in 2013, two months after his 16th birthday. He played against Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente at the same age, when Spain won a friendly 2-1 in Malabo. He will be 18 in April.
So when did he make his debut for the Veggie Lions, the Equatorial Guinea cup holders? “I can’t remember when that was,” Mbele told Goal. “I was so young I just can’t recall.”
He has always been a defender. “I really enjoy playing in defence,” he said. “I can play elsewhere but I prefer defence.”
Mbele has had a lot of help from Spain but, if he is to move to a European club, perhaps it will be Belgium, the route to professionalism for so many Africans. He is trialling at Royal Antwerp.
Javier Balboa is a Spaniard who once played for Real Madrid and, through blood ties, captains Equatorial Guinea. Another Spain-born team-mate is Emilio Nsue of Middlesbrough.
“They have both given me a lot of encouragement, a lot of help,” said Mbele. “My first ambition is to grow and learn, grow and learn – and Balboa and Nsue both help me. And my great dream is to play at the World Cup with the Nzalang.”
The coach he learned the most from is also a Spaniard. “That was Andoni Goikoetxea,” said Mbele. The former Equatorial Guinea boss was known as ‘the butcher of Bilbao’ during his playing days and his influence is there for all to see.
Mbele gave Llorente some rough treatment in that friendly, and has been booked in both matches at this tournament, so he must sit out the crucial game against Gabon on Sunday.
His favourite player was Brazil’s goal-scoring centre-back, Lucio, and his favourite African defender was John Mensah, the rugged Ghanaian who was built like a tree. Mbele is clearly not a defender to mess with, despite his age. Maybe, in future, he will be known as ‘the butcher of Malabo’.
Mbele is hoping for a win against Gabon so he can sample knockout football at international level. “We are confident we will win that one,” said Mbele. “If I had been playing, I wouldn’t have been nervous about marking [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang.”
Equatorial Guinea selected their squad, many of them dual-nationals, from all over the world. They have players from India, Hong Kong, Andorra, Gibraltar and Estonia. Two of the six playing in the Equatoguinean League look destined for Europe – Mbele and the 21-year-old Deportivo Mongomo goalkeeper, Felipe Ovono.
The Cano Sport Academy in Malabo, the city where Mbele is a student at Bioko North Institute, is beginning to produce talented players, and the Veggies have sent a couple for trials in Denmark, as well as Belgium.
The future looks bright for the Nzalang and Mbele.