As it was for so many of the game’s greats, the road to becoming one of his continent’s finest gifts has been long and full of many twists for Samuel Eto’o. For the Cameroonian, it all began in his home country, playing at the Kadji Sports Academy – the most prestigious sporting institution in his country – in the early 1990s.
It was from there he was picked up by Real Madrid, who had spotted his bright potential but who failed to capitalise on it. He played for their second team, went on loan to Leganés and Espanyol, but it was a loan spell to Mallorca where he settled in well, and in 2000, he would sign for Los Bermellones permanently. This is where his legend began.
Over the next few years, Eto’o would enhance the gleaming potential he had shown, and which had made Real Madrid so intent on closing a deal for him. During his initial loan he would bag six goals in 13 games, a fine record for a young player hundreds of miles from home and looking to rebuild his confidence. During his time as a permanent player, he would do even better.
Over the four years he was at the club, Eto’o would score 70 goals in 165 games, as Mallorca became acquainted with both ends of LaLiga. At their best, they qualified for the Champions League. At their worst, they only just managed to avoid relegation.
Although the team were inconsistent, Eto’o was continuously improving. Even better than the footballer was the man. In 2004, they won the Copa del Rey, with Eto’o scoring five goals on the way to the championship, including a quick-fire brace in the final against Recreativo de Huelva. What increased his reputation amongst the Mallorca faithful, though, was that he supported the fans who supported him, paying for €30,000-worth of meals to all the followers who had made the trip to Elche for the final.
In 2004, as his stock rose and his form only sought to get better, Europe’s bigwigs were looking to swoop in. Real Madrid, his former club, were looking to bring the Cameroon international back to the capital and loan him out once again, while Los Blancos’ eternal rivals Barcelona were keen to bring him in full-time, as his tenacity and style perfectly suited Frank Rijkaard’s philosophy. In the end, it was the Catalan club’s proposition that attracted Eto’o more and, having played for Espanyol and Real Madrid, this controversial transfer would come with added pressure.
At Barcelona, Eto’o would reach superstardom. Any fears that he may succumb to the weight on his shoulders vanished early on, and he fared well with fellow new signings Deco and Rafael Márquez, while the club’s carousel of talent also gelled well, a young Andrés Iniesta pairing particularly well with him.
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Still only 23, he showed all the characteristics to become one of the world’s best. He carried on his goalscoring form, netting 25 league goals in his first season as Barcelona won their first LaLiga title in six years. Later that year, he also retained his African Player of the Year honour. He placed third in the running for FIFA’s Player of the Year award.
If his first season in Catalonia was good, his second was great. Eto’o was always energetic, always on the move, looking to support his teammates in the build-up just as much as he wished to be on the end of moves, finishing in front of goal. This was his most unique quality, though he was good in every department needed to flourish in the final third of the pitch. In his second season, that was put to full effect.
His goalscoring record improved, winning the Pichichi, but it was in Europe that Eto’o and Barcelona achieved greater success. He played a pivotal role as they went all the way to the Champions League final in Paris, where he put in a man of the match display against Arsenal at the Stade de France.
Having gone behind to a Sol Campbell header, Eto’o scored the equaliser in the final quarter of the second half, adding a fine finish to a well-worked team move. Juliano Belletti scored the winner just moments later as Barcelona held on to win their first European Cup since Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team in 1992.
Along with his club career, Eto’o was also doing well for his country. Having made his debut in 1997, he took the Indomitable Lions to new heights by winning the 2000 and 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, while also adding the gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics. In the 2000 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, Eto’o scored four times, inclusive of goals in all three knockout games. Two years later, in Mali, it was just the solitary goal for him in the group stages, but his contributions elsewhere were admirable as Cameroon defended their title.
He built a strong rapport with the Africa Cup of Nations. In the 2006 and 2008 editions, he would score five times each, becoming the top goalscorer in the competition’s long history and cementing his name in African football folklore. Away from personal honours, however, he wasn’t able to add to his medal haul, the success in 2002 his last taste of silverware with his country.
Nevertheless, his record for Cameroon has remained unmatched, and his status as his country’s greatest-ever footballer is indisputable. In all, he was something of an ever-present figure for his nation, appearing in six AFCON tournaments and four World Cups prior to his retirement.
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Back at club level, Eto’o was going through an edgy period with his club. Following glory in the Champions League, the forward would suffer from injury issues that would keep him out of action for a prolonged period of time. When he returned, he would cause a stir. In a league game against Racing Santander in 2007, he refused to come on as a substitute; in rebuttal, Ronaldinho, his teammate, was critical of the Cameroonian’s actions.
In the next season he would suffer further injuries, as Barcelona would falter again. He was nabbing the goals and Barcelona were getting solid results but it was clear that both were capable of more. When Pep Guardiola replaced Rijkaard at the start of the next season, there were doubts over the future of Eto’o. The coach wanted to replace Deco, Ronaldinho and the Cameroonian; three stalwarts who he no longer deemed fit for his side. The Portuguese midfielder was sold to Chelsea and the Brazilian showman to AC Milan, but Eto’o remained, having convinced Guardiola he could be of use.
He lived up to his promise of good form. Despite a slow start to the campaign, Barcelona would go on a most phenomenal run, with the Eto’o, Henry, Messi triumvirate proving more than fiery in attack. In October 2008, Eto’o would claim a piece of history with his trio of goals within 23 minutes against Almería, making it the fastest hat-trick in Barcelona history, while later in the season he would reach a century of goals for the club with a brace against Real Betis. After two seasons of underachievement, Barcelona would enjoy their greatest campaign, winning a historic treble.
The league was won in style, finishing nine points clear of Real Madrid, while in the Copa del Rey they smashed Athletic 4-1 in the final in Valencia. It was in Europe that they were most impressive, beating Manchester United in the final in Rome, Eto’o scoring the opening goal. In the end, this was the most successful season of the forward’s career as he netted 36 times across 52 appearances in all competitions. It would also be his last in Barcelona colours.
He would be sold to Internazionale as part of the deal that brought Zlatan Ibrahimović to the Camp Nou, but his trophy haul refused to stop growing. Eto’o would win another treble the following season under the tutelage of José Mourinho; the first back-to-back treble ever won by a player at two different clubs.
From there he would go on to the likes of Anzhi Makhachkala, Chelsea, Sampdoria, and Konyaspor, though, inevitably, it remained clear his best days had come in the 2000s with Mallorca and Barcelona, where he forged his legend, became the greatest son of his nation, and established himself as one of the finest African footballers ever.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26