MILAN // Watch carefully in the Milan derby this evening for the embraces or handshakes exchanged between the most celebrated stars of either team before or after the game. Samuel Eto'o, of Inter, and Ronaldinho, of AC Milan, know one another well. They spent four seasons as colleagues in a very successful Barcelona team, the two most consistently dynamic figures in a side that won two Spanish league titles and a European Cup between 2004 and 2008. They had a wonderful understanding on the field for three of those seasons, but by the end of their shared spell at the club they were not always the best of friends.
This is not exactly a secret. In the hothouse world of elite football, you get a measure of relationships through the close-up lenses of TV cameras, through the studied utterances of footballers in public, the hints they give in private, and the rash things they sometimes say in the heat of the moment. Once, in an ordinary league match in Spain when Barcelona were soaring, and in the days before Leo Messi had emerged as the superstar to outshine 'Ronnie' and 'Samu', Eto'o was lip-read shortly before kick-off apparently saying to his Brazilian teammate: 'Today it's your turn to do the donkey work, okay'. A theory began to take hold around Barcelona that the Cameroonian goalscorer thought his South American partner, the man with the best and most effective tricks, shimmies and free-kicks in football at the time, was receiving an unfair share of attention when their twin contributions should be valued at least equally.
Eto'o never quite said as much, but one day, he very nearly did. It happened in the picturesque town of Vilafranca, 40 minutes outside Barcelona, where Eto'o had been invited, by a sponsor, to promote a handsome book about his country, Cameroon. The event would be suddenly hijacked by a burst of Eto'o temper. Two evenings earlier, the then head coach of Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard, had let it be known that Eto'o, returning from injury, had refused to take the field from the substitutes' bench as a late replacement. Later the same night, Ronaldinho had been asked about the incident, and muttered something to the effect that individuals should be thinking about the team first, themselves second.
Eto'o had remained silent until that sunny afternoon in Vilafranca. Then ge erupted when asked for his thoughts, sending shrapnel in the direction of Ronaldinho. "When a colleague comes out and says 'You think about the team,' he's the one who should think about the team," blasted Eto'o. He later denied this was a reference to Ronaldinho, but he was a minority of one if he interpreted it otherwise. Some months earlier he had said to L'Equipe, the French newspaper: "If I was called Etoodinho, I might be a bit more appreciated."
Ronaldinho and Eto'o stayed together at the club for another year or so after the Vilafranca volcano. But things were never quite the same. Ronaldinho's football and his fitness-levels did very little to argue against Eto'o's implied criticism of the Brazilian's work-rate and, by the summer of 2008, with Barcelona apparently fading as a force, the Brazilian left for Italy. Eto'o was invited to go too.
Defiantly, he stayed and led the assault on last May's treble of Spanish league, Cup and European Cup. Now Eto'o has followed Ronaldinho to Serie A, to the city of Milan, no longer wanted at Barcelona. Like Ronaldinho, he has a point to prove for Barcelona's ushering him out. The reunion of 'Ronnie' and 'Samu' has arrived early, suddenly, on the second matchday of Serie A, and although there are several aspects of the Milan derby, as ever, to savour, their contest stands out. Both are matchwinners on their day, and they have baggage between them. Whichever one of them has the bigger influence, the winner will derive considerable personal satisfaction.
firstname.lastname@example.org Milan v Inter, KO 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1