When Samuel Eto’o went to his parents with the news that a local club was prepared to offer him £130 per week to play football, they were astounded. They asked their teenage son, “Can you really get so much from playing football?”
A decade later, he had become one of the most prominent strikers in the modern game, though his career was forged against the backdrop of monkey chants and racial abuse. His wage had also risen to £10m per year, as he became the best-paid player in football at the time.
At the age of 35, Eto’o has done it all. He’s toured the world, winning numerous trophies across Europe, but it hasn’t been the easiest ride to the top. Despite his obvious skill, he was often singled out because of the colour of his skin, and he’s constantly had to battle racism from the stands.
He started his career at Real Madrid as a youth, but it was at Mallorca where he first showcased his lethality in front of goal. His last two years at the club were enough to earn a move, and there aren’t many bigger teams than Barcelona.
When he moved in 2004, he established himself as one of the premier strikers in the world in his next five seasons. His pace and skill always saw him sprinting away into space, and he was (and still is) clinical with his chances.
Eventually, there was to be a parting of the ways, and it came acrimoniously. His relationship with manager Pep Guardiola was definitely frosty;
“Guardiola has never had the courage to say things in front of me. He passed by the players. Xavi told me they wanted me to stay but I had to talk to Pep. I say ‘never, if you do not respect me, I do not respect you’.”
He scored 30 goals and won his second Champions League in the season that he left the Catalan side, and Inter Milan was to be his next port of call.
Considering his history with racism, it’s sad to say that chanting followed him to Italy, where a match against Cagliari was stopped after just three minutes due to abuse. They had to get the announcer to plead with the fans to stop, or the game would be abandoned.
The club was fined £22,000 afterwards, and Eto’o responded to the abuse in the best way he knows how; by scoring the winner. He also made the decision that his family could no longer watch him play because of the chants.
He added another Champions League trophy to the tally with Inter, but what came next made waves across the footballing world. He moved to the Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala while he was still in his prime, and became the highest paid player in world football with a reported pay packet of £10m per year after tax. It was certainly a long way away from the £130 he used to get as a teenager.
It’s a shame to see the players of his calibre plying their trade in some far flung league that won’t match his level, but the decision was his to make at the time. It’s also true that Russian football has its own problems with racism, so it was a strange choice to move to a league which had over 200 recorded incidents in just two seasons.
A few months after Eto’o signed, Congolese defender Chris Samba was walking off the field after a game for Anzhi when someone in the stands chucked a banana at him. It was never going to be a good fit for the forward in the long run.
A move to the Premier League was finally on the cards, although there was a feeling that he had left it a little too late. Chelsea ended up as the next destination, and nine goals in 21 games doesn’t tell the whole story. Manager Jose Mourinho was secretly filmed at the time saying; “I have Eto'o but he is 32 years old, maybe 35, who knows?”
The striker responded by celebrating his next goal by slowly walking towards the corner flag, clutching his back. (Celebrations seem to be the best way for him to express any frustration, so it’s a good thing that he finds it so easy to score goals.) The old man still had something left to give, though his sprinter's pace had begun to diminish.
He moved to Everton in the following season, although he struggled to find the net during his time at the club.
After traveling the world, Eto’o found himself in Sampdoria. For the second time in his career he struggled to find the net with ease, and it seemed that his time at the top was finally over.
At international level he has won numerous awards with Cameroon, including Olympic gold in the 2000 Sydney games. He’s the most decorated African player of all time, and he retired from the team in 2014 as their all-time leading scorer, with 54 strikes.
His latest move was to Antalyaspor of Turkey, and he started putting them away once again. He was even named as the interim player-manager in December 2015, and he’s rolling back the years as the second highest scorer in the league, behind Mario Gomez.
Whatever your feelings about his choice of club, the treatment he has been subjected to over the years wasn’t fair. His career is more than successful enough to escape the frame of racism that surrounds this article, but it’s worth saying that it’s incredible that he managed to ignore the abuse and prove his doubters wrong. It’s clear how much the issue means to the man himself, given his comments after receiving an award for his work to battle prejudice;
“It's something that affects us all and to recognise the little work that I've done, the truth is that I'm very, very happy because you can win the Champions League, you can win championships, you can score goals, but to represent a fight that affects millions and millions of people… it's one of a kind.”
Football never seemed to be an issue for Eto’o. Rather the fact that he’s a proud man, who was willing to take a stand against abuse that was never deserved. (The amount of goals he scored must’ve also been a reason why he was targeted so roughly by fans throughout his career.) He’s one of the few footballers to come back from a retirement move successfully, and a career in management could be on the cards eventually.
Will he finally be free of the abuse that plagued him in the future?