Samuel Eto’o says that a simple truth lies behind his early-season persecution of defenders in Italy and other corners of Europe. “I had a bad summer,” Internazionale‘s Cameroon striker says, matter-of-factly.
Eto’o regularly refers to himself in the third person when he is talking business, which, for him, is goals and trophies. Only a certain calibre of A-lister can get away with it and Eto’o largely does.
This, after all, is the man who won the Champions League and domestic double with Barcelona in 2008-09, switched to Inter and immediately did it again. The detail of that transfer, incidentally, is worth repeating. Barcelona parted with Eto’o and €46m (£39.8m) in exchange for Zlatan Ibramihovic.
Eto’o’s CV, which includes another European Cup, from 2006, when he scored in Barcelona’s victory over Arsenal, is humbling. It is also no exaggeration to say that he is akin to a deity in Africa.
So here was the script for the summer. Eto’o takes a well-fancied Cameroon team to Africa’s first World Cup; Eto’o lives up to his individual billing and inspires the nation to glory; Eto’o achieves immortality. It all went horribly wrong. Against a backdrop of divisive dressing-room cliques – Eto’o was the head of one faction – weak managerial leadership from Paul Le Guen and even political interference from back home, the Indomitable Lions lost all three of their group ties to exit with a whimper.
Eto’o was left to rage at being asked to play in a wide midfield role by Le Guen for part of the tournament. He could just about handle that last season at club level, when he was a member of the continent’s most successful team, but with Cameroon? To borrow a description from him, it was no way to treat “Africa’s greatest ever striker”. Compounding Eto’o’s pain was the knowledge that, at 29, it was likely to have been his best and, possibly, last opportunity to shine on football’s grandest stage.
Eto’o seethed until the beginning of the season and, when it got underway, he set about taking his frustrations out on the pitch. Unlike Wayne Rooney, for example, another high-profile World Cup flop, who looks to have dedicated the past few months to jacking up his Manchester United salary, Eto’o’s focus has been on a different currency.
Already, he has scored 15 goals in all competitions for Inter. To put his one-man crusade into some context, the rest of the Inter squad has contributed only nine. Eto’o opened with two in the Italian Super Cup victory over Roma and he has since added seven in nine Serie A games – three of them winners, one a late equaliser – and six in three Champions League ties. Tottenham Hotspur will be wary of his threat tonight when he steps out to face them at White Hart Lane.
Rafael Benítez, the new Inter manager, deserves praise for helping to harness Eto’o’s lethal mood. Benítez’s predecessor, José Mourinho, used the player on the flank in the second half of last season, predominantly the right, and he would ask him to muck in defensively.
But Benítez, while persisting with Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 formation, initially moved Eto’o from the right to the left, where he had more conventional defensive cover behind him in Cristian Chivu. He told him not to worry about tracking back, which was music to Eto’o’s ears. More recently, as Diego Milito has been out injured, Benítez has been able to start Eto’o in his preferred centre-forward position.
A sub-plot to Tottenham’s visit to San Siro, when Inter won 4-3, was the coverage in Africa. The continent was gripped. Tottenham would start with two Cameroonian defenders, Sébastien Bassong and Benoît Assou-Ekotto. Could they subdue the main man? Inside 45 minutes, Eto’o had given the answer in the form of two goals and two assists.
The banter has crackled between Eto’o and Assou-Ekotto in recent weeks, with each man promising the other a grave evening. Eto’o likes to talk a good game but not as much as he enjoys playing one.