x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Eto'o is never shy of making his point

Brash and brilliant, narcissistic and neurotic, but Cameroon need their captain to do his talking on the pitch if they are to reach the African Cup of Nations.

Samuel Eto'o joined Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala on a three-year contract believed to be worth as much as €11 million (Dh58.3m) a year.
Samuel Eto'o joined Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala on a three-year contract believed to be worth as much as €11 million (Dh58.3m) a year.

Before the last World Cup, Samuel Eto'o undertook to personally give luxury watches to each of his Cameroon colleagues if he and they could haul themselves over the tough final threshold separating them from a place in the finals.

The timepieces were valued at well over US$1,000 (Dh3,670) each, the gesture ostentatious, but appreciated by many teammates.

Cameroon did qualify. Once in South Africa, though, there would be no bonuses, no new jewellery, no points at all from three group games and a whole lot of enmity within the squad.

Thanks to the headline-generating, record-breaking contract Eto'o signed last week with the Dagestan club, Anzhi Makhachkala, he could comfortably wrap the forearms of all 23 Cameroon players called up for today's African Cup of Nations qualifier against Mauritius with Cartiers, Rolexes and any other designer-branded, diamond-encrusted wristwatch you could name.

Eto'o's three-year deal with the Russian Premier League team makes him most likely the highest-salaried footballer in the world, Anzhi having persuaded him to leave the more prestigious Inter Milan, with whom he won his third European Cup in 2010.

Eto'o has quit the more vaunted Serie A for arenas where global television audiences will follow far less closely his excellence as a centre-forward than they did when he was with Barcelona and Inter. That riles many Eto'o fans, especially in Africa.

He is, by most measures, the most successful footballer ever to emerge from the continent: George Weah, the Liberian, may have won the Ballon d'Or, but he never lifted a European Champions League trophy. Eusebio, the Mozambican, who represented Portugal and Benfica when his native country was a Portuguese colony in the 1960s, lifted only two European Cups.

"I have won everything as a player," Eto'o, 30, said at his unveiling as an Anzhi player. "This is my chance to be at a project that is just beginning."

Not according to the Cameroon daily paper Le Jour, which said in an editorial: "It's the premature end of a career. He had plenty of years ahead of him playing at the highest level. But for a while now, Eto'o the person has seen himself as more than simply a footballer. He casts his opinion about everything."

The inclination to do so must seem irresistible when heads of state seek his endorsement. Eto'o arrived in Cameroon earlier this week bearing several replicas of his Anzhi No 10 jersey. Paul Biya, the Cameroon president, had personally requested them for his family, Eto'o said.

The distance between Cameroon's most celebrated star and the "simple footballer" is easily expressed. Eto'o's record-breaking Anzhi wage amounts to more than €11 million (Dh58.3m) a year. Among his fellow squad members preparing for the Mauritius game is Ngako Duvalois, who plays in the Cameroon league, where the average salary hovers around €11,000 a year.

Eto'o will have monitored the critical media reactions to his move, because behind the bullish, competitive professional athlete lurks a sensitivity to criticism.

This reporter once spent an afternoon with him during an African Cup of Nations tournament. Stacked beside his hotel bed were faxed articles from the Cameroonian press, ready for his scrutiny. He once came to physical blows with a compatriot reporter who displeased him.

Nor has his period as the captain of the so-called Indomitable Lions been a lesson in diplomacy.

During the disastrous World Cup campaign last year there was friction. Alex Song, the Arsenal midfielder with whom Eto'o was said to have fallen out very badly with, refused to shake the captain's hand when the squad gathered for a match against Senegal in June.

Cameroon, at home, could only draw that game - Eto'o missed a late penalty - and, having lost to Senegal in March and drawn at home to the Democratic Republic of Congo, they sit third in Group E of Cup of Nations qualifying.

The prospect of the four-time winners of the continental championship - only Egypt, who are also in trouble, have won it more times - not reaching January's final tournament has become very real.south

With two fixtures left, Cameroon trail group leaders Senegal by five points and second-placed DR Congo by two. Only the group winner goes automatically to the finals. The best of the various runners-up do get to join them, but Cameroon's destiny is now out of their own hands.

While Eto'o's representatives were negotiating the last details of his move to Russia last month, he was in Gabon, being the face, the ambassador of African football, inspecting the country's readiness to host the 2012 Cup of Nations, which Gabon will co-host with Equatorial Guinea. That may the closest Africa's finest footballer comes to the event.

Eto'o loves the big stages. His current situation, both for club and country, seems to distance him from them.