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Going from 'Little Milla' to Samuel Eto'o - Chronicling the brilliance of the Cameroonian star

Ferdie
ANALYST
Feature
Timeless

Eto'o is one of only three players to play for Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Inter Milan
Eto'o is one of only three players to play for Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Inter Milan

A boy who began his career as "Little Milla" finishes it as the football world seeks the "next Eto'o". After having played 759 club games scoring 370 goals, earning 118 international caps with 56 goals for Cameroon, and immortalising himself through the "old man celebration" on FIFA, Samuel Eto'o announced his retirement from football.

An enthralling striker in his prime, Eto'o weaved around defenders and found his mark regardless of who he was facing. He finishes his footballing journey as one of the most decorated African footballers of all time. He won three Champions League titles, three La Liga trophies, conquered the Copa del Rey twice, also won the Coppa Italia twice, bagged a Serie A title, and has a Club World Cup to his name.

Setting aside the fact that few are talented and focused enough to win the silverware that he did with Barcelona and Inter Milan among others, Eto'o was a talisman for football in Africa. His international retirement came in 2014, yet he's still the all-time top goalscorer for Cameroon. He was named African footballer of the year a record four times as well.

It's almost unfair to just name the honours that he won, because he is a man who is raised by his victories, but not defined by them.

'Little Milla'

Samuel Eto'o scored his first World Cup goal in 2002
Samuel Eto'o scored his first World Cup goal in 2002

The first murmurs of a skilful Cameroonian striker hit the world stage in 1998. Already christened 'Little Milla' for the position that he played in and displaying glimpses of obvious talent, Eto'o represented his country at the World Cup in France that year.

He didn't score at that competition and didn't make much of an impact for his home side. But the fans in Cameroon couldn't contain themselves for they had found a 'Little Milla' to rally around.

The talented forward was already playing at Real Madrid among the junior sides after he was spotted at Kadji Sports Academy in Cameroon. He would only make three sporadic appearances for the senior side before he was shipped out on a series of loans which led him to Mallorca.

He scored 54 goals in five seasons at Mallorca, getting his first taste of club silverware with the 2003 Copa Del Rey win. While at Mallorca, Eto'o was also influential in the national team's successful campaigns to win the 2000 Olympics Gold, and the 2000 and 2002 African Cup of Nations. Eto'o would also score his first World Cup goal in 2002, but Cameroon didn't go far in that competition.

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But, the transition from 'Little Milla' to the dazzling Samuel Eto'o was just around the corner.

A taste of glory

Eto'o built quite an understanding with Henry and Messi at Barcelona
Eto'o built quite an understanding with Henry and Messi at Barcelona

Eto'o arrived at Barcelona in the summer of 2004 and hit the ground running. Under Frank Rijkaard, Barca won two consecutive league titles with Eto'o spearheading the attack. The Cameroonian was club top scorer is both campaigns and bagged the Pichichi trophy in his second season.

Linking up with the likes of Giuly, Deco, and Ronaldinho, Eto'o thrived and it showed. This attack would lead Barcelona to the Champions League title as well with Eto'o scoring in the final against Arsenal.

Injuries and disagreements with the staff kept Eto'o on the sidelines in the next couple of seasons. Regardless, he was racking up the goals for Barcelona. The tide really shifted in 2008 when he played some of his best football under Pep Guardiola in an iconic front three with Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry.

That attack was near unstoppable at times and ran away with the treble that season. Eto'o once again scoring in the Champions League final against Manchester United. Eto'o was making a name for himself as a "big-game player" who really turned up when the side needed him most.

A treble in his first season at Inter Milan, is there a better way to start?
A treble in his first season at Inter Milan, is there a better way to start?

Eto'o would etch his name in stone as far as football lore is concerned, by winning his second treble the consecutive year, this time with Inter Milan, becoming the only player to do so. His role at Inter under Jose Mourinho was different from the one that he had played all his life.

Diego Milito was the centre forward in Mourinho's system, but Eto'o racked up the goals playing on the wing. He even functioned as a marauding right-back when Inter were a man down against Barcelona en route to the Champions League crown.

It was the start of a future for Eto'o where he wouldn't see too many more trophies, but plenty of goals and a different brief for the versatile player.

The mercenary and the mentor

Eto'o turned a comment by Mourinho into a joke
Eto'o turned a comment by Mourinho into a joke

After two illustrious seasons at Inter, the first where they won the treble and the second where Eto'o hit a career-best of 37 goals in a season, the forward moved to a now almost forgotten Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian Premier League. He scored for fun there, but a return to the spotlight was always on the cards.

It was Jose Mourinho who fished him out of the Russian League to assist with his return to Chelsea and the Premier League in 2013. Eto'o scored a respectable 12 goals that season linking up most memorably with Eden Hazard. Although that season is infamously remembered for the 'Gerrard slip', Chelsea came incredibly close to pipping the title themselves. It also saw Eto'o score a hattrick for the Blues and whip out the old-man celebration after Mourinho had called the Cameroonian forward an "old man" to cap off a short but memorable stay.

The rest of Eto'o's career saw him star for Everton, feature for Sampdoria, score plenty for Antalyaspor, move to Konyaspor, and finish off at Qatar Sporting Club.

Off the pitch

An icon in Cameroon, Eto'o involved himself in the betterment of the community through football Two
An icon in Cameroon, Eto'o involved himself in the betterment of the community through football Two

Although he played for plenty of clubs, Eto'o is remembered fondly almost everywhere. Where he didn't contribute in terms of goals, he added his leadership and experience to the squad. He was even Antalyaspor coach for a short period in 2016.

He was also known for tackling racism head-on. The incident against Real Zaragoza when he nearly walked off the pitch after being subjected to racial abuse from the crowd is the centre of his fight against racism. However, Eto'o was always outspoken about the blatant nature of the ugly racism in football and stopped bringing his family to football games to protect them.

Predictably, he was subjected to similar abuse by Cagliari fans in Italy and the referee temporarily stopped the game to address the concerns. On this occasion, Eto'o sent a message to them by scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win for Inter.

He has also been involved with humanitarian work through his foundation focusing on education and teaching football as well in Cameroon.

Samuel Eto'o will be remembered for many things; his immense ability to find goals, his skill to get away from opponents, the work rate he brought to the pitch as a forward, his sensibility to take a game by the scruff and drag his team over the line, his temperament that was always balanced on the edge of a knife, but most of all, perhaps, he will be remembered for the smile that he had on his lips every time he took to the pitch.

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