x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Samuel Eto’o is back with a bang and ready to steer Chelsea’s Premier League title bid

This week, having retired from international football again, Eto'o begins his bid to win a league title in a third top European league – this time with Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.

Samuel Eto'o may have played his last game for Cameroon after sources say he retired from international football this week. That plays into Chelsea's hands – they want the 32 year old to spearhead a Premier League title charge. Keystone, Martial Trezzini / AP Photo
Samuel Eto'o may have played his last game for Cameroon after sources say he retired from international football this week. That plays into Chelsea's hands – they want the 32 year old to spearhead a Premier League title charge. Keystone, Martial Trezzini / AP Photo

By any standards, and even by the standards of his eventful life, this is a big week for Samuel Eto’o. It’s the one that returns him to the professional environment where he belongs.

Last Sunday, he experienced part one of his back-in-the-big-time blitz: the Cameroon team in which he has been the figurehead for a decade made it through to the last stage of qualifying for a World Cup, an important milestone for a nation who, uncharacteristically, have failed to make the finals of the last two Africa Cup of Nations.

Tomorrow will be part two, when he is available for selection for the first time for his new club Chelsea, the kind of heavyweight team, playing in an elite European league, where he had spent most of his career until the two year stint at Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala which ended last month.

As ever with Eto’o, he is back with a bang.

According to well-sourced reports, his response to Cameroon’s successful progress last weekend was to announce he would taking no part in the two-legged play-off that is the remaining hurdle between Africa’s most seasoned World Cup country and a place in Brazil.

In the dressing-room after the 1-0 win over Libya he apparently announced to colleagues, somewhat formally, he would now be retiring from the so-called Indomitable Lions and wished them well.

The bombshell, which Eto’o is yet to confirm, followed a tense few days in which the striker had disagreements with Cameroon’s German coach, Volker Finke. They may yet make up, or reach a functional compromise.

Eto’o’s brilliant career has been punctuated before by moments of impulsiveness, but also by the capacity to mend fences and reassess his attitude to situations.

“He is an honest person who will defend to the death his ideas with a strict sense of justice,” his former coach at Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard once observed. “Sometimes he can be stubborn especially when he perceives an injustice. But he has also learnt to prioritise team spirit within his sense of justice.”

That was something Rijkaard’s successor at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, would find out, too. Eto’o had won a Champions League and two Primera Liga titles with Rijkaard. Guardiola, on taking over, announced firmly that his Barca era should start without Eto’o.

The player resisted, refused to accept any of the several lucrative a prestigious offers put to him from elsewhere, trained superbly, and won the dogmatic Guardiola around.

By the end of the campaign he had contributed 30 goals to Barca’s league title and — as under Rijkaard in 2006 — scored for the winning team in a Champions League final.

Jose Mourinho would be the next beneficiary of what Rijkaard calls “a born winner”. Eto’o joined Mourinho’s Inter as part of deal that took Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona and a strong bond was formed. It seemed an unlikely one in some ways.

A few years earlier, over the course of some spiteful meetings between Eto’o’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Chelsea, the player had declared he could never work with the Portuguese.

When he did, he became inspired. Eto’o spearheaded Inter to a Treble at the end of his first season in Italy.

All these serial successes have been watched with regret by Real Madrid, the club who spotted Eto’o as a 15 year old in 1996, playing an age-group game for Cameroon in Ivory Coast. They contracted him and for the next six years never showed quite the confidence to unleash him. He had frustrating spells out on loan at Espanyol and Leganes.

Cameroon made him their youngest ever player at a World Cup, France 98, but Madrid still made him feel surplus. Once they had loaned him to Real Mallorca, and then sold that club a half share of his rights, his club career took off. Mallorca won the 2003 Copa de Rey, their greatest achievement, thanks largely to Eto’o.

When, a season after that, he demanded a move to Barcelona, Mallorca agreed, but Madrid tried to prevent it. He took the matter to the law, and took further revenge in clasico after clasico, punishing Madrid with goals and outstanding individual performances in Barca colours.

Listing his many virtues as a striker, Rijkaard talks about Eto’o’s “capacity for surprise and invention,” his “self-sacrifice and physical potency”.

Chelsea have backed Eto’o, at 32, to still have his best assets, and his statistics from two years with Anzhi are impressive. He scored at a rate of a goal every other game in the Russian Premier League, Cup and Europa League.

Anzhi had made Eto’o probably the best-paid footballer in the world. He would welcome the sense of endorsement that suggests. “He needs to feel valued,” remarks Rijkaard.

With Anzhi’s decision to suddenly reduce one of the game’s biggest wage-bills — and end a peculiar episode in which a club from distant Dagestan suddenly splashed out — Chelsea saw an opportunity.

Mourinho, once viewed as an enemy by Eto’o, will be widely envied the serial champion he now has at his disposal. He will also know Eto’o is more favourably inclined to take instructions from him than, perhaps, from Volker Finke.

And if Eto’o’s impression on the Premier League is anything like the impact he made on Serie A or Spain’s Primera Division, Chelsea will be roared on towards more trophies by the greatest ever Indomitable Lion.

sports@thenational.ae