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Cameroon gambles on Eto'o as captain as well as target man

The Cameroonian frontman has become accustomed to winning things with Inter Milan and Barcelona in recent years. Samuel Eto'o was once a man who wrote his own headlines, but now he's learning how to be a team player.

Samuel Eto'o playing for Cameroon against Egypt in January 2010

Eto'o (left) will captain Cameroon in South Africa

It's a conundrum many a coach has faced: how to get the best out of your best, yet also most problematic player. When Paul Le Guen took the reins of the Cameroon national team in August 2009, the first thing he did was take the captain's armband away from veteran Rigobert Song and give it to star striker Samuel Eto'o.

It worked. Eto'o the captain went on a tear, scoring three as the "Indomitable Lions" swept four must-win games and turned around their poor start to qualifying, eventually making their sixth World Cup with a game to spare.

Around the same time, Eto'o was given a different kind of responsibility by his club coach Jose Mourinho. The formation that took Inter Milan to Champions League glory had Eto'o - for so long the center point of the attack - hugging the right-hand touchline, with Diego Milito leading the line, scoring the goals, and making the headlines.

Samuel Eto'o celebrates after scoring for Inter Milan against Juventus in April 2010

Eto'o's streak of success that began in Spain continued in Italy with Inter Milan

Football is a team game, yet the finest strikers are inherently selfish. Eto'o is a three-time Champions League winner, and a three-time African Player of the Year. Teams achieve success through collective achievement, yet Samuel Eto'o has, more than most, looked a man with his own point to prove.

The 15-year-old Eto'o had already made his debut for the country of his birth, Cameroon, by the time he arrived at Real Madrid in 1997. He was on the capital club's books for three years but was loaned out each season and was barely given a chance to show what he could do.

Five years at Real Mallorca - during which he won two continental titles and an Olympic gold with Cameroon - allowed him to bounce back. 48 goals in 120 games earned him a move to Real Madrid's fierce rivals FC Barcelona.

Winning, nearly, the lot

In five years at the Catalan club, Eto'o distinguished himself as one of the world's most lethal finishers. His 130 Barcelona goals were scored at a rate of one every 120 minutes. Eto'o was the arrow in the bow - first of Frank Rijkaard's Ronaldinho-inspired 2005-06 team, and then Pep Guardiola's Lionel Messi-driven 2008-09 team. Both sides won the Champions League; and it was Eto'o who netted crucial goals in both finals.

It wasn't all easy-running though. He was fined for using rude language to taunt Real Madrid fans after he claimed his first La Liga title with Barcelona. Eto'o himself was repeatedly on the receiving end of racist taunting during his time in Spain, and in February 2006 he threatened to leave the pitch after abuse from Real Zaragoza fans, before his teammates convinced him to continue.

He fell out with Ronaldinho and Rijkaard, refusing to come on as a substitute in one game in 2007. In 2008, he publicly apologized for head-butting a Cameroonian journalist whilst on national team duty. Although Guardiola's arrival in the Nou Camp dugout brought unprecedented success in 2009, Eto'o the character was pushed out of the door.

The Cameroonian was a makeweight in the mega-money deal which took Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan to Barcelona. Eto'o went the other way.

Inter's success, though, has meant Eto'o was to have the last laugh, and the Italian club's success in 2010 has made the Cameroonian the winner of back-to-back league, cup and Champions League trebles - a feat no player may ever repeat.

The two clubs' fates in the intervening months since the transfer may also have proven how undervalued Eto'o has been as a footballer. He has abundant natural athleticism, is deceptively strong, possesses an uncanny awareness of where the goal is -and has shown his tactical discipline, having been given the chance by Mourinho.

National pride

Samuel Eto'o playing for Barcelona against Valladolid in April 2009

Milla accused Eto'o of putting club before country

In an interview with World Soccer magazine several years ago, Eto'o described being a six-year-old in the crowd, catching the shirt of his idol - Roger Milla. Milla was the man who, coming out of retirement at the age of 38, scored four goals to take Cameroon to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1990 - the furthest an African team has ever been.

When Milla recently said that Eto'o had "brought lots to Barcelona and Inter Milan but never anything to the Cameroon team," the words must have stung even more.

"Is it worth me going to the World Cup?" Eto'o responded on French television. "I don't need this in my career. And you wonder, 'are they my people?' Are they really my people?" Coach Le Guen and the Cameroon Football Association have reassured their star man his presence at the tournament is highly valued.

Eto'o will lead his national side out in South Africa, once again, with a point to prove. You have to wonder whether Roger Milla was just trying to wind him up, to get the very best out of him.

Author: Thomas Sheldrick
Editor: Matt Hermann

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