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Spanish Inquisition: The Mistreatment Of Samuel Eto’o

From refusing to come on as a substitute to head-butting a reporter, Samuel Eto’o has never had a reputation for docility. Outspoken in the press and frequently lacking in terms of tact, he is a controversial character who certainly has his faults. But to Barcelona fans, Eto’o is an idol, serving as one of the principal reasons Barcelona have been as successful as they have been during the course of this decade.

A Real Madrid youth product, Eto'o was never given the opportunity to break into the Merengue first team. Instead, the Cameroonian was loaned out to second-division outfit CD Leganés and then to Mallorca, being transferred in full to the islanders in the 2000 season.

After four years at the club, Eto'o finally departed Mallorca as the club's all-time leading scorer in La Liga with an impressive 54 goals. While then-Madrid president Florentino Perez was keen to bring him back to the Bernabeu, and to loan the player out again, Eto’o instead decided upon a more lucrative offer to move to arch-rivals Barcelona; it would be where he would etch his name into the history of one of the most storied clubs in the world.

Eto’o made his Barcelona debut in the season opener at Racing Santander in 2004 and, alongside Ronaldinho, instantly helped lead the Blaugrana to success as the Catalunyan club would win the Liga title. His first season with Barcelona was not without incident though: during a Barcelona match at Zaragoza, Eto’o was subjected to racist monkey chants whenever he touched the ball and some reports even claim that the crowd threw peanuts at the player while shouting racial slurs.

Rightfully incensed by the bigotry, 15 minutes before the end of the match, Eto’o decided to abandon the match and began walking off the pitch towards the tunnel as cameras caught him saying "Ya no juego mas" [I'm not playing any more]. Players from Barcelona and Zaragoza, training staff from both teams, and the referee managed to persuade the player to continue the match, but the incident reigns as one of the darkest moments in Spanish football.

Nonetheless, the outrageous incident seemed to motivate Eto’o further and the next season would spell much more success for the player as Barca would repeat as Liga champions and take the Champions League trophy in Paris. Eto’o was particularly superb over the course of the year and came away with the Pichichi (the award for La Liga’s top goalscorer) in the final matchday of the season and also won an historic third consecutive African Player of the Year award.

The next two seasons were difficult ones for both Eto’o and Barca as the player suffered a number of injuries and had a series of very public exchanges in the media with Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho while Barcelona lost their Liga supremacy to Real Madrid for two consecutive years. After the 2007/2008 season, Barcelona president Joan Laporta began making fundamental changes to the Blaugrana squad and it was widely speculated that Eto’o and his distracting antics would be included in the Rijkaard-Ronaldinho-Deco et al. exodus.

Instead, the Cameroonian international found himself in a Barcelona kit come the season opener and under new coach Pep Guardiola, Eto’o rediscovered his world class form, leading La Liga in scoring for most of the season (missing the Pichichi by two goals) and helping Barcelona win an unprecedented triplete in the Liga championship, Copa del Rey title and Champions League trophy.

In five seasons at Barcelona, Samuel Eto’o scored an astronomical 108 goals in 145 appearances, becoming a fan favourite and one of the most effective players that has played for the Blaugrana in the past decade. Eto’o not only scored goals for Barcelona, but also scored crucial goals. In the 2005/2006 Champions League final, he forced Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann into a crucial mistake as the German keeper was sent off for bringing down the striker just outside the area. The expulsion forced Arsenal to play almost the entirety of the match a man down, but Eto’o did not stop there in helping his team; he scored the equalising goal in the second half and Barca would go on to win the trophy.

This past season, Eto’o delivered a crucial goal in the Camp Nou against Real Madrid, a goal that tipped the pendulum in Barcelona’s favour and re-established a new balance of power in La Liga after Real Madrid’s two years of superiority. And once again in the Champions League final against Manchester United, Eto’o delivered with flying colours, beating Man U goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar to score the first of Barca’s two goals and bring another Champions League crown to the Catalunyan capital.

Despite all these crucial contributions to Barcelona, this summer has once again (and this time somewhat inexplicably) seen Eto’o as the subject of transfer rumours with Joan Laporta publicly shopping the player around in the hope of seeing David Villa in a Barca shirt.

Last summer in the Spanish capital, arch-rivals Real Madrid undertook a similar strategy, very publicly dangling starlet Robinho over the transfer market as a bargaining chip with the hope of bringing Cristiano Ronaldo to the Bernabeu. The Brazilian took offence with such treatment and by summer’s end, Robinho forced his exit from Los Blancos, leaving the club with no suitable replacement.

While the Eto’o case is somewhat dissimilar in that Barcelona seem to have secured an insurance policy in Inter’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the principle remains the same: as a player who helped Barca reach the heights of footballing glory on more than one occasion, Samuel Eto’o deserved far more respect from Barcelona’s front offices than he received.

When one contributes as much as Eto’o has to Barcelona, one expects a certain measure of dignity and prudence when it comes to business affairs and this summer, Joan Laporta reduced that sacred relationship to one of an irreverent monetary exchange. Big mouth or not, Eto’o was invaluable to Barcelona and for the organization to turn its back so dishonourably on such a valued player has to send a disparaging message to the rest of the Blaugrana squad.

If the Ibrahimovic deal comes to fruition and Barca are able to improve with the addition of the dynamic Swede, then perhaps all will quickly be forgotten. But if Barcelona do in fact falter, the summer Eto’o saga could well forecast a tumultuous season for Barcelona—a situation that will only be compounded should Barca face Inter in the Champions League next season…and Eto’o be given his opportunity for redemption.

Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com