Last week, South Africa was graced with the presence of one of, if not the, greatest footballer the continent has ever seen. Samuel Eto’o was in town to launch the Castle Africa 5s, a new five-a-side tournament claiming to be the biggest on the continent.
Could such a format produce the next European-based superstar? The four-time African player of the year believes such a player can come from anywhere. A dream and a ball are the only requirements. “Young players and African players have to play. They have to dream,” he said. “From there we find the stars like [Didier] Drogba, like Samuel Eto’o.”
- VIDEO: Samuel Eto’o chats to M&G
In many ways, Eto’o’s career is typical. Plucked from a Cameroonian academy at 16, it was obvious to Real Madrid that he could be a superstar.
A series of loans would beckon before he finally settled at Mallorca. From there he built his reputation as a lethal poacher and earned a move to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona for the 2004 – 2005 season.
Alongside Ronaldinho he would help the Catalans to capture their first La Liga title in six years. The aftermath of that was memorable for his chant of “Madrid, cabron, saluda al campeon” (Madrid, bastards, hail the champions) during the subsequent celebrations — a stunt that would earn him a Spanish FA-issued fine and the permanent ire of his former club.
By the time his Barça stay had come to an end, Eto’o had captured every major honour, including two Champions League titles. A transfer to Inter Milan brought European glory for a third time as an historic José Mourinho team captured a memorable 2010 treble.
Next on the cards was a step down from the glory but a bump up in salary at then little-known Anzhi Makhachkala with reports of a €20-million a year salary. And there would be more when Chelsea came knocking. Brief spells would follow at Everton, Sampdoria in Italy and finally Antalyaspor in Turkey.
At 36, it’s safe to assume he’s in the closing stages of his playing time.
Glory aside, his career is conventional in the sense that it followed the steps we expect a footballer to walk. Start young, make it at a big club and close out at a smaller
Contrast this with Drogba, who only appeared on the radar in his mid-20s. Or Asamoah Gyan, who opted for the money move in his prime and early 20s.
For Eto’o, the formula isn’t so simple. Despite only making the money move in his professional twilight, he holds that it’s up to the player to manage their own ambitions.
“Football is football. Everywhere. Ambition, it’s different for everyone,” he said.
“But when you want to be the best, you need to organise your career. To take the right decision. To move in the good teams.”
Eto’o dismissed the misconception that a player’s career is over when he decides to move to a less elite club.
“But you have another player, he wants to move to Russia … I have one, he moved first to Turkey, afterwards he moved to Real Madrid — Geremi Njitap. He played in Chelsea, he played in bigger teams. You need to organise yourself, you need to believe in your dream.”
In his career, the “most Indomitable of Lions”, as Thomas Mlambo recently described Eto’o, has faced blatant racism. Such attitudes have arguably been the biggest plagues of professional football. Eto’o thinks the worst might be behind us: “Of course some used to be racist against me. But now it’s getting much better. Fifa and the media care and that helps.”
Despite the high hopes, last week we were given a sharp reminder that the problem still lingers. In response to alleged flirtations with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was chastised for running a “monkey circus” by German journalist Karlheinz Wild.
At the launch of the Castle Africa 5s, Eto’o revealed other difficulties faced by African footballers.
“It is very difficult being African and going abroad to play football in a [European] country,” Soccer Laduma quoted him as saying. “The weather is very difficult, the food and everything but you have to adapt yourself. You have to be more talented than the [Europeans], four times more talented. You just have to be patient.”