The first time Jose Mourinho exchanged words with Samuel Eto'o, they were fiery ones. Chelsea had just eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League and the provocative Portuguese manager of the London team and the combustible Cameroonian were prominent in a sparky post-match melee at Stamford Bridge. "I liked the fact he was worked up after a defeat," smiles Mourinho at the recollection. Eto'o will officially become an Inter Milan player this week, linking up with a coach who has long admired the centre-forward as well as infuriating him that night in 2005.
Other meetings over the years have been calmer. Visiting friend and compatriot Geremi, then a Chelsea player, in London a few months later Eto'o heard first-hand from Mourinho that he would like to sign him for the club. When Mourinho learned of Barcelona's willingness to let Eto'o go 12 months ago, he let Inter's interest be known. Eto'o had other ideas then. Piqued that Barcelona, whom he had spearheaded to a Champions League and two league titles with an astonishingly high return of goals, seemed not to value him Eto'o stubbornly stayed in Spain. He finished the season with 36 goals, including the first in their Champions League final win over Manchester United in Rome.
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of Eto'o to Barcelona's successes over the past five years: twice a scorer in European Cup final triumphs; three Ligas; 130 goals in 199 senior matches. Mourinho cannot easily be challenged when he asks if there has been a consistently better centre-forward in football since 2004. Eto'o moves gracefully on the field, fast, nimble, voracious. His other moves, from place to place, have been more cumbersome.
He first came to Europe to be a professional at 15-years-old, having been spotted by Real Madrid playing a youth match for Cameroon in Ivory Coast. It was sharp-eyed work by Real to see his lavish potential. But what they did next was lazy. Nobody met Eto'o at Barajas airport in the Spanish capital, and from that moment Eto'o nursed a sense that he was undervalued. Real barely played him, loaned him out to various clubs until he found happiness at Mallorca, where his habit of scoring goals against Real began. When Barca wanted to buy him, his contract with Mallorca still meant Real had to OK the deal. He went to law to force Real to do so.
His relationship with Barcelona also deteriorated over the last three weeks of complex negotiations with Inter, which saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic moving from Inter to Catalonia, while Eto'o, with just a year left on his Barca contract, takes over Ibrahimovic's status at the best-paid footballer in the world. Yet Mourinho will appreciate Eto'o's grudge against Barcelona. Nothing fires Eto'o up like a sense of his being undervalued. And plenty of other things do fire him up.
In the era of banal public utterances from most in his profession, Eto'o is a loudmouth, the man who took a microphone on live television and called Real Madrid "b*****ds" to celebrate Barcelona's 2005 Spanish title; who publicly attacked Ronaldinho's work-rate when things went wrong there; who threatened to leave the field when racially abused from the stands one night in Zaragoza. For all these hot-head moments, Eto'o can also be a stirring leader, a positive influence perhaps, on a colleague like Mario Balotelli, the young, gifted and sometimes wayward teenage striker who will now be his Inter colleague.
Since the Eto'o signing was agreed, Mourinho has beamed about a "completely different" look to the Serie A champions, emphasising the speed brought into the squad by Eto'o, the guile of his fellow newcomer, the striker Diego Milito, the toughness and fine left foot of Thiago Motta, the authority and pace of Lucio, the Brazil centre-half. "A coach would be stupid not to regret losing a player like Zlatan," said Mourinho, "but he would be equally stupid not to want to have a striker like Eto'o."