The Chelsea striker has endured a tempestuous relationship with his national side, but his return for the crunch World Cup play-off with Tunisia offers a shot at redemption
By Peter Staunton
It says a lot for a man's sense of perspective that the only way he can be persuaded to play a football match is through state intervention. The president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, has managed to coax Samuel Eto'o out of international retirement, just like he did with Roger Milla in 1990.
Eto'o has long since transcended his status as merely a football player; the millions and the titles have bestowed upon him the status of an icon. That is how he sees himself. Whether it's stopping a training session because he fancies a Coke or dictating team selections, Eto'o behaves how he pleases. And so it was with Eto'o's retirement from the team with whom he has become synonymous.
Volker Finke, the Cameroon coach, last month named a 25-man squad for today's World Cup qualification playoff against Tunisia. Eto'o was on that list. With 55 goals in 112 internationals you might expect he would be. But it's been a complicated process. Between Finke naming Eto'o in the squad and handing him his famous green number nine shirt in Rades today, the Cameroonian public have been unsure of his participation.
After last month's narrow 1-0 win over Libya in Yaounde, Eto'o told team-mates that his time with the national team was at an end. There was speculation that a breakdown in his relationship with Finke, after only four matches of the German's reign, was the chief cause.
Eto'o had tried, again, to meddle in the Cameroon team like he had done at Anzhi Makhachkala and previously with the national side. Goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and striking deputy Achille Webo were Eto'o's preferred selections on the day. Finke would not waver, however, and stuck to his choices of Charles Itandje and Eric Maxim Chupo-Moting.
The Chelsea forward has been uncharacteristically reticent since that match against Libya, in which he wore the captain's armband but played only an hour. He has since refused to go on record about his 'retirement', leading to all sorts of distracting conjecture dominating the build-up to the vital matches against the Carthage Eagles. Finke urged Eto'o to explain himself instead of having to field questions about the issue.
Controversial | Eto'o needs to let his football do the talking for Cameroon
That was unforthcoming until this week when Eto'o emerged from a summit in Yaounde with an associate of President Biya. "You can have all the problems in the world but you have to see out your mission," Eto'o said. "And this time it's to join my team-mates in Tunisia and return with a good result." What is not yet apparent is whether or not Eto'o's recall is worth the hassle.
His time at Stamford Bridge has demonstrated a lack of sharpness after two seasons of semi-retirement in Dagestan. He has not made the difference, in a positive sense, for Cameroon in a long time. As the glory years fade from view, Olympic and African titles in the early part of the last decade seem very distant now, Eto'o stands alone as a link to that gold-laden past.
Despite his status as a world-class player, Cameroon have not been the same team since the retirement of key individuals who may not have been as talented as Eto'o but who were integral to their success. His reign as captain has been shambolic, as poor as has been seen in international football. Internecine feuds overshadowed the entire 2010 World Cup campaign with Eto'o and Rigobert Song battling for command of a divided dressing room. They went out in the first round, disgraced. Song, now the Cameroon team manager, is indifferent to Eto'o's return, writing on his Facebook page earlier in the week: "With or without him, we will go to play the match on Sunday against Tunisia."
The indomitable Lions missed the 2012 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations tournaments following poor qualification campaigns under Eto'o's stewardship. Indeed, the latter was dragged into the quagmire by him. The 32-year-old refused his selection for the two-legged play-off against Cape Verde, citing the Cameroonian FA's (Fecafoot) amateurish and backward administration. Among his concerns was sitting in economy class for flights. The Blue Sharks overcame Cameroon in the first leg before Eto'o deigned to make his comeback for the return leg. It was not enough. His glorious return sullied. His legacy damaged.
It was Eto'o, too, who was responsible for an unprecedented strike on the part of the Cameroon team in November 2011. He urged his team-mates not to take to the field for a friendly against Algeria in a row with the association over unpaid bonuses. For that he was handed a 15-month ban, reduced to eight at the behest of that man again, president Biya.
Cameroonian football, from top to bottom, has been a shambles for the best part of four years. Eto'o may not ever recognise his part in that for his ego would not allow it. Beyond his role, fans are fed up. Fed up with the federation, the coaches, the team, anyone who could be blamed for their agonising decline from the top of African football. The fact of the matter is this - Cameroon have scored only once in three competitive matches under Finke. Despite his considerable baggage, Eto'o is a four-time African footballer of the year and on his day one of the world's most lethal forwards.
This time the alliance is uneasy but Cameroon are desperate.