Ever since Josep Guardiola succeeded Frank Rijkaard as the first team manager of FC Barcelona, the team has gone from strength to strength. Guardiola orchestrated the team in a way that not only made the game of football look ridiculously easy but also ripped open most defences in Europe. One might say that a team consisting of players of the calibre of Ronaldinho, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Henry ought to terrorise defences across Europe by default, but it was the presence of a certain Cameroonian that truly added the impetus.
Samuel Eto’o Fils, one of Cameroon’s favourite sons, signed up for FC Barcelona in the summer of 2004 for a ‘paltry’ sum of €24 million. The transfer fee and Samu’s eventual service to the Catalan club, when contrasted, sees the former pale into insignificance. Having spent his entire youth in Spain, La Liga wasn’t alien territory for the African striker. In his very first season at FC Barcelona, Eto’o helped his team win the domestic league title after a hiatus. The Cameroonian finished just a goal behind Uruguayan Diego Forlan in the Pichichi race. Nonetheless, he went on to grab the coveted award the very next season when Barcelona won their second straight domestic league and the elusive Champions League. The Catalan club then fell from the giddy heights of the UEFA Champions League pinnacle to finishing third in La Liga. Barcelona underwent a complete metamorphosis with the exodus of some of the superstars of the past and emergence of the champions of the future. Amidst speculation of an imminent departure, the former Mallorca-man stayed put, only to help re-write history.
Samuel Eto’o had a perfect start to his Barcelona career when he netted in his very first match. The African forward sustained his imperious form the entire season netting 29 goals for the League Champions in all competitions. Under the tutelage of Frank Rijkaard, the triumvirate of Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Ludovic Guily formed a devastating combination. The squad was restructured significantly following the retirement of key players Luis Enrique and Marc Overmars, as well as the return of Edgar Davids to Juventus and first team regulars Patrick Kluivert and Phillip Cocu moving onto new clubs. Samuel Eto’o made an immediate impact with his agility, composure and poacher instincts.
Barcelona went on to win the La Liga after six years and Samuel Eto’o finished amongst the top 3 players in the world only behind his Barcelona colleague Ronaldinho and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard. If the 2004-05 season was good, the following would prove to be even better. Frank Rijkaard’s men not only defended their domestic league title, but also added to their trophy cabinet by winning the coveted UEFA Champions League and the Spanish Super Cup. Samu got the equalizer for the Catalans against a defiant Arsenal in an electrifying Champions League final. Barcelona went on to win the match 2 – 1 and Eto’o was recognized as UEFA’s Best Forward of the Year. Yet again, the Barcelona marksman finished at the top of the scoring charts. This time he bagged the prestigious Pichichi too, scoring 26 league goals and 34 goals in all competitions. Eto’o also won an historic third consecutive African Player of the Year award that season. But things would soon go downhill from there.
Despite the addition of Italian fullback Gianluca Zambrotta, French centre back Lilian Thuram, Icelandic striker Eidur Gudjohnsen and the return of Argentine Javier Saviola, FC Barcelona couldn’t replicate its authoritative form. Frank Rijkaard had won almost everything a manager can aspire to win in his career. The Dutchman had put together an ensemble cast but couldn’t steer the Barca ship anywhere. Samuel Eto’o too had unassuming season. He ruptured the meniscus in his right knee at the start of the season. Initial assumptions had it that Eto’o would be able to recover well before Christmas. That wasn’t to be. The mercurial forward went under the blade and finally recovered after five long and cold months. Barcelona’s trophy aspirations were deeply fraught. Amidst speculations of probable dressing room unrest between Ronaldinho and Eto’o, the latter’s refusal to come on as substitute in a match only confirmed suspicions. Barca was in first place for much of the season while arch-rivals Real Madrid were six points behind and in fourth. Just after the supposed dressing room bust-up, the Catalan side’s form depreciated and Real’s improved considerably. At a crucial juncture in the league, Real Madrid came back valiantly after going down 1-3 at home against Espanyol and finally won 4-3. A beleaguered Barcelona dropped points against a struggling Real Betis. Both teams eventually finished on 76 points but a better head-to-head record gave Real Madrid their first La Liga after 2002-03. Eto’o had scored a meagre 13 goals in 27 appearances, his worst in Barcelona colours.
If the 2006-07 season was bad, the following was a disaster. FC Barcelona fell from the zenith of a prestigious Double (La Liga and UEFA Champions League) to the nadir of finishing third in La Liga and with no silverware whatsoever. Frank Rijkaard’s departure was imminent along with a host of stars, Eto’o being one of them. Arsenal captain Thierry Henry signed for the Catalan side. In a bid to restore parity the addition of yet another superstar only added to Rijkaard’s problems. Samuel Eto’o again found himself in the thick of things only to aggravate his meniscus injury in a friendly match against Inter Milan. The Cameroonian’s absence took away the sheen from the Barca attack. The Catalans eventually slipped to third place after Villareal. Statistics will reveal the magnitude of the fall of the mighty Catalans. They finished a whopping 17 points behind the eventual champions – Real Madrid! Samuel Eto’o form did not quite improve but he managed a few extra goals. His tally of 18 goals in 28 appearances failed to do justice to his immense potential and critics were of the opinion that Samuel Eto’o has nothing more to offer at FC Barcelona.
The Final Episode
On the eve of the 2008-09 season, Barcelona bade goodbye to one of their most successful managers. Josep Guardiola i Sala, the man who replaced Rijkaard, made his intentions clear at the very beginning. Surprisingly, the volatile Samuel Eto’o was deemed surplus to requirements along with an ageing Deco and a besieged Ronaldinho. Given the kind of person the Cameroonian is understood to be, it was palpable that Samu would make his intentions clear very soon. With top clubs from England and Italy hankering for the forward’s signature, the Cameroonian was spoilt for choice. Eto’o stayed put! Not only did he refuse to budge, he even finally won Guardiola’s faith with sheer determination and hard work in practice and pre-season. At the turn of the season, the African had one of the best seasons of his career. If his previous partnership with Ronaldinho and Guily was menacing to defences, his association with Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry was diabolical to the oppositions.
Samuel Eto’o was a lot wiser than what he used to be when he first joined Barcelona. Besides his tremendous acceleration, finishing and work-rate, he also learnt to use his physical presence. The ability to hold onto the ball in the final third despite pressure from defenders gave Messi and Henry all the space required to move ahead and get into positions. The fluidity offered because of Eto’o versatility helped the Catalans to rip open most defences in Europe.
Not only did the Catalans win their first Treble (La Liga, UEFA Champions League and Copa del Rey) but they also scored an astounding 140 goals in all tournaments. Samuel Eto’o gave his best performance for Barcelona yet, scoring 36 goals in 52 appearances, in what was co-incidentally his last season at the Camp Nou.
After spending 5 seasons at the Camp Nou, the African notched up a walloping 130 goals in 200 appearances for the club. Samuel’s service towards the club goes way beyond his goals. After joining as just another talented, volatile and care-free African youth, the Real Madrid youth academy product not only matured as a footballer but also as a human being. Adaptability is yet another key attribute behind Samu’s success. After his transfer from FC Barcelona to Inter Milan, Eto’o had to undergo transition from one school of football to another. The three-time African Player of the Year not only adjusted to the more rigid and strategic Italian league but he also helped Inter Milan win their first European Cup after a hiatus of 4 decades, in his very first season.
Samuel Eto’o etched his name in history having won two back-to-back Trebles (Domestic League, Champions League, Domestic Cup) with two different teams. History will indeed remember Eto’o as one of the greatest strikers to have graced the game of football.
– Anustup Sikdar and Aaron Schweitzer S.