x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Barca's penalty box assassin

Ahead of tonight's Champions League final, Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o talks exclusively to The National.

Barcelona's Cameroonian attacker Samuel Eto'o, left, takes part in a training session at the Olympic stadium in Rome on the eve of the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.
Barcelona's Cameroonian attacker Samuel Eto'o, left, takes part in a training session at the Olympic stadium in Rome on the eve of the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.

Lionel Messi may make Barcelona dance, but Samuel Eto'o is the killer who scores the vital goals. Barca's most prolific marksmen shapes the Catalans' attack, allowing teammates to make key passes. His 128 Barca goals in five years at Camp Nou have lifted him to fourth in Barca's all-time list of goalscorers, just two behind Rivaldo in third. Off the field, the Cameroonian, 28, lives in a relatively small apartment in the densely populated district of Pedralbes with his wife, three children and extended family.

Inside, the match ball from the 2006 Champions' League Final jostles for space with a life size gold bust of Eto'o from Unicef, three African Player of the Year trophies, a mock diamond-studded ipod, banks of football and film DVDs, piles of football magazines from around the globe, a picture of Eto'o with French president Jacques Chirac and a television the size of Equatorial Guinea clad in what appears to be crocodile skin.

The pictures of African art on the wall indicate that he's still in touch with his roots. When he signed for Barca from Mallorca in 2004, Eto'o said: "I will run like a black man, to live like a white man." For millions of African children he's the Ali of the 21st century, with visits home to Cameroon adopting the pomp of a state occasion. They see him as more than a footballer, as the continent's standard bearer. If he wasn't a footballer Eto'o says he'd be a lawyer. He has the intelligence and sincerity, if not the caution. If Eto'o has to say something then he says it. His outspoken views get him into trouble and a year ago new Barca coach Pep Guardiola told him that he could leave alongside Ronaldinho and Deco. Eto'o remained and shut up, earning the respect of Guardiola.

Eto'o merely says: "You have to look to the future always. The past is already history and it's not worth anyone remembering it." You clearly live football at home as well as at work?. Eto'o: "(pointing to DVDs) I don't go out often. I devour football. I ask my brother to prepare hundreds of videos on precise aspects of Barça's attacking game because I want to know everything that my teammates are thinking. It's my unseen training. You often see the same patterns and players often do the same thing: Messi always wants the ball inside because he never goes outside for example. I know where the players like to pass - I don't just run anywhere. I anticipate, I don't guess. I don't know where the ball will go, but I do know where it will go if you understand. I have a gift, but I cultivate it.

How important is it for you to have your family in Barcelona? It is not as important for them to be in Barcelona as it is for me to feel the support from that family, no matter where they are. The continent is a mental state. I live in Europe, but I sleep in Africa. Every goal of mine is a celebration of there. Hopefully I'll have time to do more things for the people in Africa when I've stopped playing.

You talk about your instinct for scoring. Is that innate? I've always scored goals, but I've worked on timing. You get results if you work. In training I demand to be put in difficult situations, to receive difficult balls. Scoring is only easy when the ball is in the net. I shoot a lot in training. Out of every hundred stones that you throw you never know which one will kill the bird. My universe is the goal with a goalkeeper in it.

You are at home in the box? Yes. I know that place. I don't panic there. I'm very cold blooded. It is fundamental to be able to shove out of your mind the thousands of things that can pollute your spirit in that moment. Do you have a technique? I look at the goalkeeper. He might make a small mistake. When I get the ball I think 'goal'. Everything is about the goal. I position myself so that I score. And when I don't have the ball I run after it.

Not many people know that when you were younger, you played as a midfielder or as number '10', but not as a '9'. I know what it is to defend because I played several positions which demanded sacrifice for the team. I try never just to be the guy who scores goals. I want to fight up front, in the middle or at the back. He who fights for every ball is he who doesn't have a number on his back. I was frail when I was younger - that taught me to dodge people. Above all I discovered that speed is essential in football, and it wasn't only to escape the big guys who were running after me.

You have been linked with a move away from Barcelona several times. Do you think about the future? No. I'm happy here in Barcelona. I have a contract here until 2010. I can't imagine myself leaving? At times, you've suffered some horrific racist abuse in Spain. You started to leave the field after one incident in Zaragoza? That showed how I felt. I did not ignore it. Some players do. I was angry then, but that is in the past. Politicians should speak about racism, not sports people. Sometimes I'm guilty of being too sincere, but there's nothing I can do about it. I swallow and get on with it.

You've suffered racism in other areas of your life. You tried to make a purchase in a luxury shop in Paris? The assistant refused to accept my credit card because she thought it was stolen. But when they see that you're a footballer, they don't see the black man, but the money. Does it still hurt that you never made it at Real Madrid? Is that part of the reason why you always play so well against them?

It didn't hurt me, but it bothered me at the time. It didn't work out but that's life and I've not done too badly. Does playing in the Premier League appeal to you? I watch English football. I like the crowd at the games because it's close to the pitch and the stadiums are always full. It's not always like that in Spain. We played at Anfield and the noise was very loud, with lots of different songs. I like that. Football is different in England. It has a place in English hearts. But as for moving, look at who I play for, look at where I live and my lifestyle, look at what I've won. Would you move?

You once said that you don't envy the lifestyle of another Englishman, David Beckham? That's because I don't. I'm happy with who I am. He is more handsome, but I'm the better player. What was your big fault as a child? My heading was weaker so my trainers painted white circles onto a wall. I had to touch them with my head. I didn't realise why I was missing headers, but then I understood. I became more precise and learned to evaluate the distance between me and the goal. I often remember this grey wall which has allowed me to score so many important goals. I also worked on shooting. I shot with the inside of the foot. I placed the ball instead of using strength or force. They encouraged me to shoot hard.

What type of player were you as a child? A gifted player who was not afraid of anything. I always tried the impossible with the ball. Is this no longer the case? I only dribble when it's necessary now. I've managed to get rid of the extra stuff, which is not easy for an African who adores everything that is beautiful about the game. On the other hand, when I play for the national team, I have a tendency to go back to my roots. At Barca I am at the point of the team. At Cameroon I play behind the main striker and I become Cameroonian again. Dribbling, trying a nutmeg and making passes.

Describe your ideal strike partner? I don't have one. At Barca, I like them all. Thierry Henry is magnificent. And Messi - is there a better player than him? Do you want to do too much in Barcelona? No. It's very simple at Barcelona. I don't have a desire to organise a game like Xavi or Iniesta, or to dribble like Messi, who is a genius. My strength is to keep my position. I am disciplined and I get upset when the others aren't.

Who has influenced you? The chats that I had with Henrik Larsson at Barca were very precious. Henrik taught me how to become invisible, how to make others forget about me. He taught me how to disappear in the eyes of defenders, but to remain running. Nothing in a match is by chance. Everything is done in training. Then your talent helps you to succeed in what you've worked on. amitten@thenational.ae