To many football fans in Cameroon, Samuel Eto’o is a legend, pride and hope of the country’s football, while a number of officials believe the onetime shy and inoffensive lad is becoming too vocal and uncontrollable, and could sow the seeds of rebellion in the outfit.
And after more than 112 caps won for the Indomitable Lions since 1997 and 55 goals scored to become the team’s all-time top scorer, the desire from the top was to build the group around another personality as soon as possible to debase the dependence on the four-time African Footballer of the Year.
In July 2011, a Cameroonian lawmaker publicly called on the Football Federation (Fecafoot) to strip Eto’o of the Lions’ captaincy because, according to him, the player was getting too rich and arrogant. The call was ignored by the body and technical staff, mostly because of his popularity with local fans.
Eto’o was however handed an eight-month suspension after he allegedly instigated the team to boycott a friendly match against Algeria in November 2011, which cost the Cameroonian FA $400,000 in damages.
Samuel Eto'o with Ivorian wife Bernadette | He says he belongs to all Africa and not Cameroon alone
Eto’o was granted the opportunity to appeal the decision but he declined and stepped aside to watch how they would fair without him. The team had a dismal run, failing to qualify for two editions of the Africa Cup of Nations (2012, 2013) and losing popularity back home with sales of jerseys hitting a record low turnover.
In February this year, the former Barcelona forward accused officials of the Fecafoot of plotting to take his life after denouncing mismanagement of funds at the body. That became the height of a lingering back and forth confrontation between the player and the country’s football officials, who however played down on the reports, calling them baseless.
And when Eto’o was included in the squad to face Togo in the 2014 World Cup qualifier at home in Yaoundé last week, many felt he would not honour the invitation due to the ongoing tensions. Surprisingly he came, but with unusual personal belongings – drinking water, jerseys and training materials. He also hired private security agents.
It was probably the most crucial moment for his international career, to prove whether he still matters at home or his time and value were over.
The Lions struggled against a plucky Togolese side but Eto’o’s two goals were enough to hand them a vital home win that propelled Cameroon to the summit of Group I with six points.
Smile was on every lip in the central African nation after the victory, which many describe as the herald of hope after a number of nasty and frustrating setbacks.
Eto’o appears to embody the aspirations of a whole nation in quest of pride, patriotism and unity through football and no matter how dark he is painted their love for him will not wane any time soon.