Samuel Eto’o received the ball at speed from Andres Iniesta in the right half-space inside of Manchester United’s box. He faked a shot and cut past Nemanja Vidic to sneak in a shot under Edwin van der Sar and before a late-tackling Michael Carrick. The goal, which Alex Ferguson admitted “killed us” after the match, put Barcelona up 1-0 in the 10th minute of the 2009 Champions League Final, and well on their way to clinch the first ever treble for a Spanish club. That 2009 Barcelona side, which was Pep Guardiola’s first season as manager, is still thought of as one of the greatest club teams of this century. Looking back now, and considering the influential nature of their success, Eto’o’s opener is then one of the most important goals of the past decade.
Staying on the theme of large, historical legacies, the question now is whether Eto’o, after retiring from a 22-year career last week, is the greatest African soccer player ever. The raw numbers are humbling, beginning with his 370 goals in 759 matches. With Messi scoring Barcelona’s second goal in the 2009 final, the trio of Eto’o, Messi, and Thierry Henry finished with exactly 100 goals for that season. Though they had no clever nickname like MSN or BBC - and their achievement was just before the rise of social media - that front three foreshadowed this current age where top teams’ attacks are defined by the interplay between their frontline trio.
But improbably, Eto’o did it again, winning another treble in the very next season, with a new club. He left Barcelona for Inter that 2009 summer as part of a swap for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And while Eto’o made his name in goals, it was a tactical and sacrificial performance in the second leg of a 1-0 loss against Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals that highlighted his intelligence and versatility. Eto’o finished the match at right back following an early red card to Thiago Motta. His teamwork and leadership would further manifest in the 2010 Champions League Final. In a now-folklorish story, Jose Mourinho reportedly asked Eto’o to deliver the last words of inspiration before Inter stepped onto the field against Bayern Munich.
Eto’o told his teammates to die on the field.
“I knew that in Europe you needed to be more balanced and Eto’o could give me that,” said Mourinho when he brought the striker to Inter. Eto’o stated that his time under Mourinho unlocked a new level to his footballing knowledge and made him a more complete player, even at the age of 28. The move also highlighted how Eto’o straddled two of the defining ideologies of the era under Guardiola and Mourinho. His once-fractured relationship with Guardiola is well-documented, though the Spanish manager now describes him as “one of the best.” Mourinho agreed, saying that Eto’o was the best striker in the world and should have won a Ballon d’Or.
There’s a story that when Jonanthan Wilson went to interview Samuel Eto’o in Cairo before the 2006 African Cup of Nations, he found the striker watching a match on local television. Eto’o confessed to Wilson that he had no idea who the teams were, but enjoyed studying the shapes and open spaces of various leagues. All soccer players, as all people, have some underlying reason driving their professional career. Eto’o’s hunger and knowledge for the game took him through 13 teams, six countries, and three continents.
Eto’o’s worldly outlook allowed him to add chapters and layers to his career narrative, but that curiosity may have backfired in prematurely ending his relevance at the highest level. His move to Anzi Makhachkala in 2011 made him the highest paid player in the world at $29 million per season. Though in leaving Inter at 30 years old, there is a hint of regret from Eto’o supporters who believe he had more to give in Europe’s glamour leagues. It is easy to say that Eto’o left Serie A for one final, major paycheck, although in hearing him discuss what the game, there must have been some intrigue with trying a new league. Regardless, the move effectively took himself out of the larger footballing conscious.
He reunited with Mourinho at Chelsea two years later, then finished his days with short stints in Italy, Turkey, and Qatar before retiring. For a career as vast as Eto’o’s, what immediately comes to mind when describing the player? It would surely have something to do with goals or trophies. Massimo Moratti ranked the Eto’o swap as maybe his greatest transfer deal ever, making sure to add that he respected Ibrahimovic. The contrasts between the two players are apt, with Ibrahimovic the viral star with his individual moments of brilliance and Eto’o the player who made the team work. But take the important moments from the turn of this decade, and Eto’o was probably there.
Soccer “is the most important thing in the world, only surpassed by politics,” said Eto’o in an interview from 2008. He added that “where politics stops, football begins.”
Likewise, Eto’o’s intellect off the field seamlessly seeped into his play on it, and vice-versa. His post-playing career ambition is to be the “first coach of colour to win the Champions League,” but in the style of Guardiola’s Barcelona. He admitted that his goal scoring celebration in the 2009 Champions League Final was a reference to feeling constantly overlooked due to his skin color. Eto’o tried to walk off the field during a match against Real Zaragoza in 2006 due to monkey chants from opposition fans, but was persuaded to continue the match by Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard. After an Italian television pundit was recently fired for racist comments against Romelu Lukaku, Eto’o sadly observed that these moments keep repeating themselves on the footballing stage.
Eto’o emphasized that soccer - the resources, players, the tactics, the enjoyment of all supporters from around the world - must be a free-flowing exchange from league to league, removing boundaries. He often spoke of football as the great equalizer. In discussing whether African players have a difficult time adjusting to Europe due to racism, he said that a player’s quality was the transcendent factor. Eto’o would add that “football reflects life” for better or worse. And with his journey, there may be no footballer who better represented what it meant to be shaped by the game, by how the game could move, by what it could give and take away. Eto’o may not have been the defining player of his era, but no player experienced the era more deeply than Eto’o.