Aging is a funny thing. On the one hand, it can make you calmer about things that once worried you incessantly. On the other hand, it makes you appreciate those people who always had more than a little fire about them. I think it’s something to do with respecting those who always lived life on their own terms.
That’s why, at some level, I will always have time for Samuel Eto’o. He had a career as complete as anyone could possibly hope, and he did it from some of the toughest beginnings. The path of an African player to Europe, however promising, is well-lined with those who fell away into obscurity. Eto’o, meanwhile, strolled right in the front door and made himself at home. Moreover, even when things didn’t go so well, he remained undaunted.
His resume is magnificent enough. Just the other day, I was thinking of forwards who had starred at a series of clubs – the one who came most quickly to mind, for some reason, was Hernan Crespo, who was superb at Lazio, AC Milan, Parma and Inter. Eto’o went a somewhat longer way round, but he became a point of reference for both Barcelona and Inter Milan (of which more later). But that’s not the reason I respect him most.
In his Barcelona days, during a game against Zaragoza, Eto’o found himself subjected to a series of monkey chants; distressed by the constant abuse, he threatened to walk off, and was persuaded against doing so by his team-mates. He stayed on the field and helped his team to a win, but that wasn’t the point; the point was that he refused to go in for the charade, which was that footballers are merely objects for the abuse and the consumption of the paying fan. It was taking this kind of stand which made Eto’o the player he was, and which set a fine example of how to retain your dignity when under fire.
He never had a chance to make a career at Real Madrid, instead finding fame at Mallorca; there was no love lost when he won a league title with Barcelona, dancing and singing “Madrid, bastards, salute the champions”
Eto’o’s refusal to compromise in other spheres cost him a series of key relationships. In that sense, you could almost call him the patron saint of the burnt bridge. He never had a chance to make a career at Real Madrid, instead finding fame at Mallorca; there was no love lost when he won a league title with Barcelona, dancing and singing “Madrid, bastards, salute the champions”. Following a season in which he won a treble of UEFA Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey with Barcelona, he then fell out with Pep Guardiola, whom he would later publicly accuse of passive-aggressive behaviour. Eto’o presumably took particular delight in going to Inter Milan the very next season and winning another treble – the first player to have done so in back-to-back campaigns – eliminating Guardiola’s Barcelona along the way, in a tie coached by Jose Mourinho at his most pragmatic.
Of course, Eto’o was a consistently magnificent footballer, which made him worth every euro of the fuss. He had an impudence that had to seen to be believed. If you go to YouTube and view a compilation of his, entitled “Samuel Eto’o all goals for Inter Milan (2009-2011)”, you will see, at 3.08, a moment when he misses a penalty – and then, when following up, he dummies the goalkeeper by kicking the ball with his standing leg. He had many gifts – among them, bewilderingly good close control, and startling acceleration – but he had two that stood above all. The first of these was his eye for the first-time strike – he hit the ball so early that goalkeepers rarely had time to set themselves – and the second was his sense for the big occasion. He opened the scoring for his team in two UEFA Champions League finals (in 2006 and 2009) and was decisive in countless other matches at the highest level.
As a result of these achievements and several more, there is a strong argument for Eto’o’s claim to be the greatest African player of all time. In a sense, though, it’s the wrong argument – because that would confine him to a continent, while he belongs among the legends of the global game. He walks in the footsteps of Eusebio, Abedi and George Weah as footballers of African heritage who have made their mark on the world stage – but none, perhaps with the exception of Didier Drogba, have ever done it with such swagger.