Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Eto'o to Anzhi: The motivation
The headline from Monday morning's Cameroon Tribune newspaper screamed. "Eto'o deal done!" it proclaimed, with a photo of a beaming Samuel Eto'o, with details of the deal promised in its inside pages.
Readers who flocked to buy the paper soon realised they had been conned. The classic ruse had worked again, for the Tribune was not talking of Samuel, but his younger brother Etienne, who had signed for Austrian second division side FC Lustenau at the weekend.
As for the real Eto'o, readers had to wait for official confirmation of the Anzhi deal. Like fans everywhere else, Samuel had similarly left the local media in uncertainty after a press conference in Douala two weeks ago.
On his off-season holiday, Eto'o had arrived at that presser that Saturday morning in denim and a simple red T-shirt. The cameras captured his smile as he waved and greeted. Someone had organised drums to usher him into the packed hall where the media waited.
Austin Ebanga, a good friend of Eto'o from the Cameroon Tribune, gave the opening statements and Eto'o was handed the microphone. "I'm here for one simple reason," he began - "recent events" had pushed him to address his fans on what his plans for the immediate future were.
Samuel Eto'o looked relaxed. However, his audience of mostly media people was not - and he knew why. "I know the last time we met like this, things did not end well. Rest assured, there would be no such occurrences today." There was nervous laughter. Indeed, Eto'o's last press conference in Cameroon had ended with him attacking a journalist. Following instability in the national team, Eto'o had accused that particular journalist, now seated among the audience, of inciting people against him.
The Inter forward went to the main issues. Yes, he was still contracted to the Italian club. Yes, the rumours about "a certain Russian club" were true. Yes, he was still examining the offer, but no, nothing had been signed. Gustav from Cameroon Radio and Television asked if he was aware that he would become the highest-paid athlete if the figures being mentioned as his transfer fee from Anzhi Makhachkala were correct. "I don't recall mentioning any club", he countered, adding "but let me say I have not thought about that, you must understand. I could go and I could stay."
More questions came. One person asked if Eto'o was having any problems at Inter - like the personality clashes with Pep Guardiola revealed after he left Barcelona - which would make him leave. "At Barca there were clear issues with racism and things, but everyone knows I dealt with them." He had evaded the question.
He dealt with the rest of the questions briskly. By the end of the presser, the journalists were left with more questions than answers.
CRTV caught him outside and asked: "Why have you not learned Italian in your time at Inter if you really love the place?" Eto'o had been caught completely off-guard. In the coming days, the confusion on his face would be replayed many times in the TV news reports. Eto'o stood there for several seconds. Then he stammered "I'm not sure...I don't know&.Just one of those things."
He marched into his Lexus and left. Besides the money, why would Eto'o want to play in a remote, 20,000-seater stadium in the predominantly Muslim province of Dagestan? There have been murmurings in Cameroon that despite successes chalked with Inter, he has not been entirely comfortable with life in Italy. Eto'o has remained less socially active and more conservative than he was in Spain. His Spanish wife (he also has a child with an Ivorian lady) is fastidiously kept out of the media.
Unlike many African footballers, he usually does not make references to his ghetto upbringing in the tough Nuy Belle neighborhoods of Douala. He'd rather tell you where he is going than where he has been. His famous quote from when he joined Barcelona in 2004 that he would "run like a black man to live like a white man" encapsulates his thinking. Anzhi should be a further step for him to "live like a white man". The deal is widely reported to include a private jet to be put at his disposal and an option for his family to live in Milan or move back to Barcelona.
Cameroonian journalist Aurelien Ebanga said all the journalists at the presser "knew he would go [to Anzhi] but all we needed was the when."
In fact, days before this hugely anticipated event, Eto'o had visited the newly-built campus of his foundation in neighboring Gabon. There he had also inspected the facilities for next year's African Nations Cup and faced questions from Gabonese journalists on his possible move to Russia. One hack asked if his move from Inter, should it happen, would purely be because of the money. In a very rare moment of haughtiness, he had answered that "big money comes to big players."
Of course the Anzhi move is about money. For Inter, Eto'o's fantastic deal translates into €7 million as a signing-on fee, €15 million per season, €20,000 per goal and €10 000 per assist. Even Inter boss Massimo Moratti admitted that "when you get a proposal like this it is difficult to refuse". Russia may not qualify as a footballer's new challenge, but the fact remains that the four-time African Footballer of the Year has won everything at club level. But is there another motivation?
Like all of us, Eto'o still has dreams that only money can buy. The Cameroonian is targeting a post-football career as a power broker back home and in African football politics. In nations ruled by the likes of Cameroon's quasi-dictator Paul Biya and Issa Hayatou (CAF President), wealthy people hold sway. Money buys power and Eto'o wants in. He said in 2010: "You can't give power - you must earn it."
Being paid by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov should keep him out of the daily spotlight since Anzhi is not in a major European league. But that will not worry a player who has become the-highest paid athlete in the history of sport. Eto'o has always been king. His crown just got bigger.
Gary Al-Smith is a freelance African football journalist for ESPN and is on twitter @garyalsmith