News Matches
African All Stars

Remembering Eto'o & Yaya together at Barcelona

11:00 BST 31/05/2020
African Legends Cup of Nations: Yaya Toure
Both African Legends Cup of Nations finalists were teammates in Catalonia from 2007 to 2009, during a glorious era for the Spanish giants

When Barcelona signed Yaya Toure from Monaco in summer 2007, it was with the intention of wresting La Liga back from their biggest rivals Real Madrid. 

The Ivorian was one of four first-team signings made by Frank Rijkaard going into 2007/08, as the Blaugrana sought to bounce back after throwing away a six-point lead in the previous campaign to miss out on a third successive league title to Madrid, undone by the irksome head-to-head rule on the final day. 

One of those signings included Thierry Henry from Arsenal, whose arrival heralded what was to become one of the most formidable attacking trios ever seen in Europe, alongside the talented Lionel Messi and prolific Samuel Eto’o. 

However, it didn’t materialise without difficulty. 

Having ended the top scorer for Barca in 2004/05 and 2005/06, a five-month absence had restricted Eto’o to just 17 league starts in 06/07, 17 fewer than the previous campaign and 20 lesser than his first year with the Catalan side.

2007/08 promised to the better with Barcelona seemingly strengthening, but injury struck again, in August, and the Cameroon forward was sidelined till December. By the time he returned on matchday 15, Barca were already trailing Real in the league by four points (32 to 28). This increased to seven after a damaging matchweek 17 El Clasico defeat by Los Blancos at Camp Nou, and Rijkaard’s troops never recovered. 

It certainly wasn’t the maiden year in Spain that Toure envisaged given the club’s transfer moves in the summer he joined. Edmilson’s long-term injury meant the Ivorian was largely first-choice pick in front of the defence. He’d started 15 of the first 18 matches before leaving for Africa Cup of Nations duty with the Elephants, as did Eto’o with Cameroon. 

Things began to unravel even further by the time the pair returned from Ghana in February 2008. 

Ronaldinho, who’d criticised the African forward for allegedly refusing to come in a game against Racing Santander the year before had declined spectacularly as he faced questions about his focus and physical conditioning. The two-time World Player of the Year was in and out of the side all year and, by March, had played his last competitive game for the Catalan side.

With Real Madrid refusing to surrender top spot, and a warring Barca dressing room struggling for consistency anyway, Rijkaard seemed to prioritise the cup competitions in the final months of the campaign.

Unfortunately, they were eliminated by Valencia and Manchester United in the semi-final of the Copa Del Rey and Champions League respectively. 

For many Cules, the biggest humiliation that year wasn’t the fact they finished in third, 18 points behind Real, but the guard of honour given to the champions in May at the Santiago Bernabeu. To rub their noses in it, the Whites thrashed their fierce rivals 4-1 which confirmed the chasm that had been established between the clubs.

On May 8, the next day after that embarrassing loss, Barcelona announced Rijkaard would be departing and the inexperienced Pep Guardiola will be promoted from Barca B…the club’s future was about to change significantly.

For Yaya, it certainly wasn’t the campaign he imagined upon joining in 2007. While the midfielder was a Champions League semi-finalist for the first time, in reality, the decay at the club meant further decline was predicted. 

Eto’o, surprisingly, ended the season as the team’s top scorer in La Liga with 16 goals despite missing three months of the season. This was perhaps the signifier of how low Rijkaard’s final season sunk.

Unbeknownst to many at the time, Guardiola had been monitoring how the situation in the first-team devolved in the final two years of his predecessor’s reign. He took the job determined to make Henry his primary forward, while jettisoning the self-indulgent Ronaldinho, egocentric Eto’o and Deco. 

The former Barcelona captain also wanted to make Xavi, Andreas Iniesta and Sergio Busquets his midfield combination going forward. Busquets’ promotion was to have ramifications for Yaya down the line. 

Interestingly, Jose Mourinho was supposedly the frontrunner for the daunting job that eventually went to Pep. Barca’s hierarchy, especially the late Johan Cruyff, had reservations about his personality and playing style, so took a gamble on one of their own.

It’s hard to consider how things would have panned out had the Portuguese been appointed at Pep’s expense, but the general feeling is Eto’o and Toure would likely have stayed longer at Barcelona if the ex-Chelsea boss took charge.

After Guardiola’s arrival, the Cameroon frontman promised to put selfish interests aside for the good of the team. He was given another chance under the new boss, although the same couldn’t be said for Ronaldinho and Deco who left for AC Milan and Chelsea respectively. 

Henry wasn’t best pleased by this turnaround, still, he put his ego aside and formed an awesome partnership with Eto’o and Messi. The trio scored a combined 100 goals en route to Barca’s historic treble-winning campaign. 

Toure, for his part, played an important part in that campaign too, notably featuring at centre-back in the semi-final second-leg European Cup tie at Chelsea and producing an encore against Manchester United in the decider. 

He bettered his appearance numbers from his maiden campaign too (43 games in 08/09 to 38 the year before), but Busquets’ rise to prominence meant he was on borrowed time at the club. Still, success in that second season completed a turnaround that was perhaps unforeseen after the collective mess of Rijkaard’s final season at the helm.

Eto’o, though, departed after that remarkable campaign following several run-ins with Pep, largely due to Messi being made the main in the side. Also, the striker’s Pichichi chase, which the manager felt depicted individualism as opposed to the collectivism he was trying to propagate, made the Spaniard’s mind up. 

A cash-plus-player swap with Inter Milan saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic join Barca with the four-time African Footballer of the Year going the other way.

Many claim Guardiola’s unfounded dislike of Eto’o and Yaya harmed their careers, whereas it was he who made their time together at Camp Nou worthwhile, especially after the collapse of the Rijkaard regime the year before.