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When, early in Eto'o's childhood, his father lost his accounting job, his mother got up every morning at 3 o'clock to buy fish at the port and resell it on the streets. Soccer offered life's fun and consolation. "Like any other African child," recalls Eto'o, "I'd play barefoot with balls that we made out of plastic bags, wrapped tight and bound with tape."
Eto'o in person is lithe and hard-muscled but surprisingly slender if you have seen him only on TV, playing his pacey, explosive game. He is known chiefly as a goal scorer. (During his five years with Barcelona he became the Catalan club's third highest scorer ever.) "But others may also define me as the first line of defense," he says. "I always seek to do the best I can in every position, in every facet of the game. Success is much more than a question of quality it's a question of heart. That's what gives you the winning edge." Far from provoking envy among his teammates because of the $13 million (10.5 million euros) he earns, Eto'o is valued for his humble commitment to the cause. Character, self-confidence and drive are the qualities that have shaped Eto'o, allowing him to swim ahead in what he calls "the whale-infested waters of European soccer." Professional soccer is a giant meritocracy, on the first rung of which are millions upon millions from all over the world sharing Eto'o's infant dreams of glory. The few who make the initial cut, who are recruited at a young age by professional clubs, must overcome all manner of psychological and athletic obstacles before making it to the top at which point the going continues to be fiercely difficult. Each time you turn up for work, your performance is under the scrutiny of millions of eyes, all anatomizing your every move as if you were an insect under a microscope.
Eto'o's break came when he was 12. A sports academy in Douala called l'Ecole de Football des Brasseries du Cameroun saw his potential and took him on. From there, he graduated to the best facility of its kind in the country, the Kadji Sport Academy, financed by one of the wealthiest men in town. Eto'o represented his country in the under-16 level, and it was there that a scout for Real Madrid, the most glamorous brand name in football, spotted him and brought him to Spain for a trial. He went north at 14, signed a contract, then went back a year later and stayed, sharing a room with another young recruit in a Madrid hotel paid for by Real.
Far from Home
The biographies of famous players are filled with sad tales of homesickness during the adolescent stages of their careers. Eto'o was familiar with neither the language nor the culture of the country where he took his first steps as a professional. Did he miss his family? Was it hard? "No. No. Not at all!" he exclaims, smiling brightly. "I had my dream, and when the opportunity came along (and what an opportunity!), I went for it." Missing home was not an option. Missing home, you might say, is an indulgence that young players from better-off countries can afford; but when you come from a continent where survival is, for many, a daily battle, sentiment succumbs to practicality. For Eto'o, it was yet another dream to suddenly find himself training alongside players whose posters he had kept at home.
Not that all was plain sailing. Frustration set in when two years passed and he had not gotten into Real's first team. He was lent out to a small Madrid club called Leganés, and from there he moved, also on loan, to Mallorca. He starred there, but the big Madrid team did not exercise the option of taking him back, and (in a move that Real would come to regret) he was sold to archrival Barcelona. It was yet one more in a long line of spectacular misjudgments by the people in the game who purportedly understand it best.
That is another of the reasons why soccer is so endlessly appealing: like life, it is unpredictable, irreducible to scientific certitude. All the top coaches (a group that includes Manchester United's Alex Ferguson; Fabio Capello, now the England coach, formerly a champion in Italy and with Real Madrid; and Pep Guardiola, the coach of the Barcelona team that last year won everything there was to win) have made colossal blunders in identifying talent. When it came to Eto'o, Real's misjudgment was Barcelona's gain. The Catalan team won the Spanish league in Eto'o's first season, and in the next they won both the National League, with Eto'o as Spain's top scorer, and the European Champions League. In five seasons at Barcelona, he won the Spanish league three times and the European Champions League twice. Then, in an error that Barcelona would rue, they let Eto'o go to Inter Milan, who knocked the Catalans out in the semifinals of this season's European Champions League with Eto'o playing like a warrior and then won it.
It has been glory and wealth and joy all the way. Or almost. A bane of African players in some parts of Europe is racism. Not within teams Eto'o is adamant about that: "Nothing of that. If you're good, you're good, and that's the end of it. But sometimes you find yourself in a stadium where the fans go after you because of your color, because they are ignorant, because they haven't traveled." Eto'o recalls one game for Barcelona at Zaragoza when sections of the crowd spent the whole time making monkey noises at him. He now regrets that he reacted by taunting the crowd himself, performing a triumphant "monkey dance" after he scored the winning goal. "In general, in Spain, this was not the norm. It was the exception," he says, with the generosity of a man who intends to retire in Spain. "But football reflects life, and in life, such idiocy exists, unfortunately."