This brief respite in the packed calendar before the next European season means the onset of an entertaining, risky and frustrating sideshow called the “transfer market.” Sometimes it can be useful to reflect on the past and how it informs the present. For example, we are approaching the 13th anniversary of an atrocious piece of Barcelona summer market business that didn’t have the same financial penalties as their recent misadventures, but was nonetheless excruciating and embarrassing for the Camp Nou club.
At the time, Barcelona had just won the treble, only the fifth club to do so, Pep Guardiola had emerged as a catalytic figure — not only for his club, but for a particularly exciting and intricate brand of football — and footballers like Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were about to conquer the world. Yet Samuel Eto’o, despite the best form of his career and 36 goals scored during that treble-winning season, was informed he would be offloaded in order to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan.
You read that correctly: sufficient adults at Camp Nou were foolish enough to think that a) getting the Sweden star instead of Africa’s greatest player was a beneficial exchange and that b) Zlatan was worth a higher transfer fee than Eto’o! In the process, Guardiola allowed Barcelona to take on a moody, self-interested player, but pushed out a ferocious, free scoring, Tasmanian Devil force of nature to do so, and paid a €46 million fee for the privilege. Ridiculous.
The rest is history: Zlatan lasted one unhappy season in Blaugrana colours, while Eto’o immediately became the only player in history to win the treble in consecutive seasons: not only was he central to Barca’s brilliance in 2008-09, but he was key as Inter ended Barca’s Champions League defense in the semifinals, and to the Nerazzurri registering the greatest season in their history. For those keeping score: Eto’o won LaLiga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League in Spain, and then Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League in Italy, all within 21 months.
Operation ‘Oops!’ or what?
– ESPN+ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (US)
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (US only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
Overall it was indefensible, both in its original form and with the benefit of hindsight. However, there was a little bit of context recently when Eto’o, now president of the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot), went into his national team’s dressing room following their narrow win over Burundi and let rip, using some juicy language, at the players for their efforts. The context is: Eto’o is not an easy man with whom to coexist.
Cameroon, who have already qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, were attempting to qualify for the next African Cup of Nations. You might think that a win, featuring massive possession control, by Cameroon at the end of a long, tiring season, was, as they say, a win. Not Eto’o. He reckoned he’d witnessed one of the things he most despises: a lack of an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. And so, he “lost it.” Who filmed him in the dressing room? And who thought it was a good idea to distribute it on social media?
#Cameroon FA boss Samuel Eto’o: “No one has a guaranteed place. You have to do your job. Whoever wants to come and wear the Cameroon jersey, he does his job when he is in this team. Otherwise, he does not come and I’d be happy. I would play with children.”pic.twitter.com/kuSSJ73FPh
— Oluwashina Okeleji (@oluwashina) June 10, 2022
Firstly, it was ironic that Eto’o, who was constantly in dispute with his national FA, his employers at the club level, his teammates and, inevitably, the media (one of whom he headbutted) while in the prime of his career should immediately use his new position to hammer the players who represent his country. Ironic because there was just such an incendiary conflagration back in 2010, not long before the World Cup in South Africa, where then-Fecafoot president, the legendary Roger Milla (star of Italia ’90), put the boot in on Eto’o, who was on his way to that second consecutive Treble while in Italy.
In questioning Eto’o and his effort while playing for the Indomitable Lions, Milla said: “He’s done much for Barcelona and Inter, but nothing for Cameroon.” The tit-for-tat continued, with Eto’o threatening not to bother playing for his country at the World Cup “if that was how he was viewed.” All in all, it was a ludicrous situation that was eventually avoided, and Eto’o scored both of Cameroon’s goals as they were eliminated after a group stage containing losing finalists Netherlands, plus Denmark and Japan.
So was Eto’o aware of the possible consequences, I wonder, when he let rip at the current squad while in Tanzania, where their win over Burundi was hosted? And was he aware that some of them might take it as badly as he took Milla’s words back in 2010? It wasn’t an elongated verbal battering, so I’ll reproduce most of it here:
“I’m not happy, not happy at all. I have to pick the Cameroon team and those of you who don’t want to put the work in can f— off. I don’t care who you are. Everyone must do their job.
“Do you know how many tears I’ve shed over the years because of all those lost chances in the World Cup? I know exactly why we didn’t make it back then, and I have no intention of letting it happen again now. Not as long as I’m president. That’s why I took this job: to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“And it doesn’t matter who you are: no one is guaranteed a place in my team. Everyone has to earn it without exception. If you want to wear the Cameroon shirt, I expect you to knuckle down and put the work in. Anyone who has a problem with that will not be part of my team. I don’t care if I have to pick a bunch of kids to go to the World Cup.
“I was exactly where you are for 20 years. I know exactly what you’re thinking, and you’re probably all calling me a b——. But I was the best and even I ended up where you are now.
“I’m going to give you everything … I’m going to turn my entire life over to getting you in the best shape for this competition. And I’ll go toe to toe with every single one of you if I have to. You’re here now, and I expect you to put the past and all its baggage behind you. For me, nothing matters more than Cameroon. There’s nothing greater or more beautiful than this country of mine. I’d die for my country, and I’m going to do it proud, with or without you.
“If you intend to join me on this journey, then I want to see some graft. And don’t make the mistake of assuming you’re in my squad. In fact, if I see another performance like the one I saw today, I can tell you now you won’t be going anywhere.
“I had beautiful experiences as a Cameroon player. We had exceptional teams, but we lacked any kind of unity at a basic human level, and that’s why i didn’t get my World Cup. This time around that’s going to be different. I need the players in this team to connect on a human level. To enjoy being together, living together. If we get that right, nobody will be able to stop us.”
I think for almost anyone outside the professional game, it’s the type of diatribe you’d imagine giving to a set of players if, by some magical process, you were suddenly in charge. Themes like “try harder,” “show more pride,” “I’ll drop you unless,” or “don’t be under any misapprehensions that I’m the big bad boss” would be reasonable. Also, most of us believe (often incorrectly) that these themes are central to a team’s underperformance. Whether it’s effective or, more probably, dangerous to attack modern, well-paid, pampered professionals like that and let it be seen in public is highly debatable, but that’s not the key element attracting my attention.
For anyone who saw Eto’o try to throttle a club employee who had awarded an offside against him in Barcelona training; who knows of his background story that, as a kid, he hid for months in his sister’s flat in France in order to enter that country illegally; who heard him raging against Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard when standards were dropping at Camp Nou in the period before Guardiola took over; or who sympathized with his almost constant railing against Fecafoot’s inefficiency and self-interest back when he was their leading player, there will have been a clear understanding, watching this video that Eto’o hasn’t changed.
This is him. He’s fueled by a vast, volcanic and volatile inner fire that led him, unerringly, to speak the truth as he saw it, to not fear retribution and to treat every training session, every match and every competition as if it were life or death. This video, for those who didn’t have the privilege to see him in full flow back in the day when he performed for Madrid, Mallorca, Barcelona, Inter, Chelsea and Cameroon, is Eto’o in the raw, a force of nature .
Now think for a second. How many players do you know, nowadays, who are like this? Not absolutely identical in every indomitable, irascible detail, but broadly cut from the same cloth? I’ll bet that those you name, from whichever club or national team, are generally successful, regarded as leaders and, even if polemic figures, are well-regarded by their peers.
This latest bout of “Eto’o-ism” may or may not work well; certainly, Serbia, Switzerland and Brazil, Cameroon’s World Cup group stage opponents, will be watching hawkishly. But the reason I mentioned Laporta, Xavi, Cruyff, Alemany, Begiristain and Guardiola towards the top of this column is that all of them are engaged in trying to find a little bit of that Eto’o-style aggression which which to improve their squad .
For as much as they need to cut costs while adding talent, Barcelona patently lack punchy, all-or-nothing, naked competitive aggression in their squad (only Gavi, Pique and Jordi Alba qualify as exceptions.) While Manchester City (staffed by Begiristain and Guardiola, who respectively signed and sacked off the young Cameroon striker) have, I think, just added some of these invaluable intangibles in Erling Haaland. Notwithstanding the young Norwegian’s immense talent and impressive physical attributes, he’s a guy who “goes to war” day in, day out. Kudos to him.
As for Barcelona, how they identify and successfully tempt more guys with that precious, dangerous and frustrating, but ultimately essential, Eto’o spirit, something they once had and lost? Well, that’s going to be a long, hard and potentially fruitless task.