Sorry Luis Suarez… Samuel Eto’o is Barcelona’s greatest ever number nine


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Samuel Eto’o’s retirement marks a particularly bittersweet moment for Barcelona, who the Cameroonian helped transform from serial underperformers to the best team in the world.

The announcement comes ten years after Eto’o left Camp Nou, and with a decade long enough to make memories hazy, it’s the perfect moment to recall just why he was Barça’s greatest number nine.

That may sound like a bold statement, and the eagle-eyed will point out that Luis Suárez has better stats on paper: 177 goals in his first five seasons for Barça, compared to 130 in the same number for the Cameroon international. It’s not just how many goals were scored though, it’s also when they were scored and what they meant, and in that regard, Eto’o is untouchable.

Samuel Eto’o joined Barcelona in 2004, and the rest, as they say, is history

AFP – Getty

Samuel Eto’o joined Barcelona in 2004, and the rest, as they say, is history

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For the necessary context we have to go back to 2004, the year Eto’o signed for Barça. The Blaugrana had finished second in LaLiga the season prior – even the magic of Ronaldinho not enough to stop them from enduring a fifth consecutive year without a league title or any silverware at all. The Catalans were becoming something of a joke, not meeting the expectations raised by a club of their historic significance to Spanish football.

Though their Brazilian number 10 is often credited with turning that situation around, he couldn’t do it alone. A key piece was still missing in the middle of the forward line.

That piece was found a season after Ronaldinho’s arrival, out on the Mediterranean on the island of Mallorca. A striker with bags of class and a vendetta against Real Madrid to go with it, Eto’o couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for Barça if Joan Laporta had designed him.

Someone of Eto’o’s quality doesn’t appear out of nowhere, and these days there’s no way a goalscorer of his ability would have lasted four full seasons at Mallorca, who signed him following a short loan from Madrid. The striker was the key figure in firing the islanders to remarkable feats: a third place finish above Barcelona in 2001, qualification for the Champions League where they beat the likes of Arsenal in 2002, and a Copa del Rey win in 2003.

The odds of a side of Mallorca’s resources pulling off that kind of consistent success are tiny, and much of it was owed to the exceptional figure they had leading the line, now considered by fans to be the greatest player in the club’s history.

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Negotiations that included not only Mallorca, but also Real Madrid (who owned a percentage of Eto’o’s rights), were tricky, but Barcelona finally unveiled their new number nine in August 2004.

Eto’o’s press conference set the tone, where he said he would ‘run like a black man to live like a white man’ and added that he ‘wouldn’t have gone back to Madrid for 1000 million pesetas’. This was a player on a mission, someone determined to prove his doubters wrong and reach the absolute peak, even if he had to drag a still floundering club with him.

And drag Barça forward Eto’o certainly did.

In his first season at the Camp Nou he scored 25 league goals, finishing joint top scorer in LaLiga (the first time a Barcelona player had topped that chart since Ronaldo in 1997) and firing the Blaugrana to their first league title since 1999. In a now iconic moment, during the celebrations at a packed Camp Nou, Eto’o took time to remember sceptics, leading the supporters in a chant of ‘Madrid, bastards, salute the champions!’

After years of hurt, Eto’o helped give Barça their pride back. It was only the tip of the iceberg.

The following season Eto’o once again topped the league scoring charts, ensuring another title.

But it was his contribution on May 17, 2006 that was the most significant of all. With Barça only 15 minutes away from losing the Champions League final to Arsenal, Eto’o darted into the box from the wing, latched on to Henrik Larsson’s pass then fired the ball into the net.

The goal turned the tide. Barcelona went on to win the European Cup for the first time since 1992 and only the second time in their history.

All of that would have been enough to ensure Eto’o’s place in the list of all-time Barça greats, but what happened in the few years after truly sets him aside.

Eto’o won two European Cups with Barcelona, and added a third during his time at Inter

Getty – Contributor

Eto’o won two European Cups with Barcelona, and added a third during his time at Inter

While Ronaldinho would grow tired of winning, becoming more of a hindrance than help before a young Pep Guardiola showed him the door in 2008, Eto’o refused to pack his bags. The determination to prove doubters wrong reared its head once more, particularly in pre-season preparations, where he worked like a man possessed.

Despite Pep saying in public that Eto’o wasn’t part of his plans, the squad pleaded for him to reconsider. Heeding their advice proved wise; in 2008/09 Eto’o produced his best season in front of goal for the Catalans, scoring 36 in all competitions as part of a lethal triumvirate also featuring Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi.

The icing on the cake was the opener in the Rome Champions League final, a goal that killed Manchester United’s early momentum, put Barcelona in control, and steered them towards an historic treble.

Guardiola wanted to axe Eto’o, but keeping him around proved to be a brilliant decision

AFP – Getty

Guardiola wanted to axe Eto’o, but keeping him around proved to be a brilliant decision

Guardiola’s stubborn insistence on finally moving Eto’o on just a couple of months later remains his greatest error. Inter could hardly believe their luck when Barça offered around £60m plus their treble-winning centre-forward for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With Eto’o subsequently winning the treble for a second consecutive year, and the Swede imploding after half a season, the deal quickly proved to be one of the worst of all time. Had Guardiola swallowed his pride for a second summer, he and Barcelona may well have pulled off the one feat that evaded even them and retained the Champions League.

The Barcelona Eto’o joined in 2004 was an empty shell of its former glory. The one he left in 2009 was greater than ever.

Not only the dominant force in LaLiga again, but also, for the first time in its history, the consistently dominant team in Europe. Without the belief, hunger, goals, and staying-power of the Cameroonian, that historic transformation could never have happened.

Eto’o still stands alone at the top of the pile of Barça’s greatest number nines.

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Chris Wright

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