He scores... to get the monkeys off his back

The burning urge to play attractive football — and to be respected and rewarded for his skills — is the story behind all the 26 goals and the numerous assists that have made many football writers describe Samuel Eto'o's game as a cross between the power and pace of Ronaldo and the silken touch and guile of Owen.

N. U. ABILASH

IN early April at Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium, as has always been in this season, there was a sad moment in a beautiful game involving Samuel Eto'o. For once, though, the adjective `sad' does not entirely allude to the racial barracking Barcelona's 24-year-old Cameroonian striker had to face on the way to 21 goals in the Spanish league this season. Even as Real Madrid's stars justified their `galactacos' label for the first time this season by outscoring Barcelona 4-2 in the scintillating second La Liga match of the season between the archrivals, Eto'o — the top-scorer of the toughest league in the world this season and the first African ever to be the season's top scorer of a major European league — was carried off in the second half with an injury to the right knee.

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It certainly would be appropriate if the moment is referred to as being symbolic of the match itself — the fall of Eto'o meant that title leaders Barcelona would have nobody to finish off the quicksilver exploits of a Ronaldinho-inspired midfield for the rest of the season (the club lost Swedish striker Henrik Larson early on in the season to injury) and everyone knows that great teams such as Real Madrid can take a kingdom if you give them an inch (poor Arsenal, if one may recall, discovered that of Manchester United in the 2002-03 Premiership season).

However, Real Madrid administrators will not see the incident through the optic of men of letters. For them, not seeing Samuel Eto'o for the small part of the season that remains would mean getting a certain objective distance to look at their buying during the summer of 2004 and ensure that such unmitigated disasters do not happen again. Eto'o — whom Barcelona signed at the beginning of the last season from La Liga side Real Mallorca for 18 million pounds — was, in a matter of contractual technicality, the first right of Real Madrid.

The story goes like this. Eto'o, all of 16 and known in Cameroon as the next Roger Milla, arrives in Madrid as part of the Real Madrid youth system in 1996-97. Real, instead of giving Eto'o chances in the first team, sells him to Real Mallorca in the 1999-2000 season, striking a deal that if Mallorca were to resell Eto'o, Real would get half the takings and also the first buy-back option.

Then comes Real Madrid's match against Mallorca at the Bernabeu at the fag end of last season. Eto'o scores twice for the visitors, propelling them to a 3-2 win against their favoured rivals. The second goal is a peach — Eto'o at full speed goes past three Real players and puts the ball inside the net with a bullet from just inside the penalty area. But, the post-goal celebration is even more poignant. Eto'o runs in the direction of the Bernabeu VIPs box brandishing his fingers in anger in what many perceived to be a `get-me-back' sign. At the end of the season, `Galactacos President' Florentino Perez decides that his club already has crossed the prescribed ceiling of non-EU players and requests Eto'o to stay on in Mallorca for a year more, after which he would buy him back. Arch-rivals Barcelona have other ideas and offer a helping hand to Eto'o, who is desperate to showcase his talent at the highest level with a big club.

As if to rub it in further for Real, Eto'o scores Barcelona's first goal in his team's 3-0 win over their archrivals in their first league encounter last November to give the Catalan giants a head-start in the title race. It is an advantage which Barcelona did not let slip at all during the season, and one which just might be the cushion for them in the last month of the season as Real, rejuvenated by their 4-2 win at home, blow hot and cold over their rival's shoulders.

Hitting back against the rejection from Real is not the full history behind Eto'o's 21 La Liga goals and a further five goals in the Champions League — an aggregate count of 26 so far which is second in Europe this season only to the 30 of Arsenal's Thierry Henry. In a shamelessly racist football season in Spain, Eto'o has been fighting many battles for his right of existence as an individual, and his powerful head and strong yet lithe feet have mostly been his cannon and pen.

Yet, sometimes there have been occasions in which the expressive outlets have overflowed. In February, Eto'o danced like a monkey to celebrate his goal against Zaragoza. "I danced like a monkey because they treated me like one," he said angrily about the crowd, which made monkey chants whenever he touched the ball and even threw peanuts on the field. Eto'o was targeted for racial abuse earlier too — most perversely in Barcelona's match against Albacente in December and the Catalan club's match in November against Getafe and moderately in many other matches including Barcelona's match against Real in November.

In fact, challenging power and authority comes naturally now to Eto'o given the turbulent personal experiences he has had to go through this season. In an interview to an English football magazine earlier this season, Eto'o talked about how nobody from Real Madrid had turned up at the airport when he first came to join the youth programme from Cameroon and spoke about the contrasting experiences of most of his white colleagues in the youth system.

Eto'o has been fierce in contesting money power as well. After Chelsea overturned a first-leg 1-2 deficit against Barcelona to win 5-4 on aggregate in the second leg of the Champions League second round match in March, Eto'o took a swipe at the Roman Abramovich owned West London team. "We were the only team that wanted to play football. Chelsea going through is a disaster for football," he said. "And if this team wins the Champions League, it would make you want to retire. With so much money and so many players, what they do is not football."

The burning urge to play attractive football — and to be respected and rewarded for his skills — is the story behind all the 26 goals and the numerous assists that have made many football writers describe his game as a cross between the power and pace of Ronaldo and the silken touch and guile of Owen.

These are the attributes, which many believe, would help Cameroon create history by progressing beyond the quarterfinal stage (which Milla's team achieved in Italy 1990) in Germany 2006, or more realistically and appropriately, in South Africa 2010. Eto'o, who already has won two African Nations Cups and an Olympic gold, would be at the peak of his powers by 2010. Just as Ronaldo in 2002.

More importantly, he would have had plenty of experiences of being a winner at the highest level before he can think about inspiring his country to a World Cup semifinal — or two steps beyond — when the tournament comes to his continent for the first time ever. The first of many such winning moments would hopefully come in the matter of few weeks if Barcelona manages to hold off Real. The physical pain of the knee injury in April and the psychological torture of the season would be history then.