Samuel Eto'o Exclusive: Why I Immediately Fell In Love With Everton

In an interview that appeared in Everton's matchday programme last year, Cameroonian superstar Samuel Eto’o explains why he knocked back Liverpool to sign at Goodison Park in 2014 and reveals his regret over not staying on Merseyside to play for the “incredible” Evertonians longer than five months...

Think of Everton playing at Burnley and one of the first images which springs to mind is of Samuel Eto’o doing his thing. Of the crisp October day in 2014 when Eto’o brilliantly scored twice and appeared to have lit a fire under his Everton career.

‘Samuel Eto’o Masterclass’ the Club tagged its own highlights package of the game without fear of contradiction.

It features an amusing vignette, too, Steven Naismith celebrating Eto’s crackerjack second strike by larruping the ball against the bar, only for it to inadvertently rebound onto the head of prostrate goalkeeper Tom Heaton.

Naismith probably wouldn’t be able to recreate the sequence given another 100 goes. But the Scotsman’s unfettered glee stemmed from an admiration at what he’d just seen as much as the fact Everton had gone 3-1 up.

A bona fide global footballing superstar, Eto’o had signed for Everton precisely two months earlier.

“Honestly,” begins Eto’o, “signing for Everton was one of the best decisions I’ve ever taken.

“I had other offers, I spoke with Liverpool and other teams had been talking with me.

“But when I spoke with the Everton manager [Roberto Martinez], everything changed, and I didn’t look at any of the other offers I had.

“When I met him, I immediately fell in love with Everton. I was excited by his plans for the Club and his ideas on the game... that is what took me to Everton.’

Eto’o came to Everton trailing a formidable reputation and clutch of glamorous former employers.

A penny for the thoughts of Real Madrid, who allowed Eto’o to leave for Mallorca in 2000 without playing a game.

Real nevertheless appreciated what they had on their hands.

They brought Eto’o to Spain when he was 17, the Cameroonian already tearing up trees in senior football in his homeland and retained part-ownership of the player when he moved to the Balearics.

Eto’o joining Barcelona in 2004, then, would have felt like a kick to the solar plexus for those at the Bernabeu.

Never mind how they felt watching him pile up honours in Catalonia; three league titles, one domestic cup and two European Cups – Eto’o scored in Barca’s final successes against Arsenal and Manchester United, to boot – by the time he was done.

Eto’o added another Champions League as an instrumental member of Jose Mourinho’s redoubtable Inter Milan 2009-10 treble winners.

It is a surprise, then, to learn that when Eto’o succumbed to the ravages of time two months ago he didn’t reflect on a decorated career without regret.

Chiefly, he reckons Evertonians didn’t see the “real Samuel Eto'o” during his five-month Goodison Park stay.

Eto’o expands on his theory, confessing he similarly never hit his straps in his season with Chelsea prior to joining Everton.

“I was disappointed to be at Everton for only a short period,” says Eto’o. “When I came, I knew I was joining another big club, no doubt.

“I had played a lot at all my previous clubs and managed to entertain the fans, while achieving a lot of different things.

“But at Everton, even though I played in a few games, I don’t think the fans ever saw the real Samuel Eto’o.

‘A bit like at Chelsea, I don’t think they saw the best of me there either.”

Eto’o played 20 games for Everton, 12 from the start. He scored four goals, half of which came in that game at Burnley. His first in that match owed everything to instinct, Eto’o ghosting into the box to meet a cross from Leighton Baines and power a header past Heaton.

Eto’s second was stunning in its simplicity and execution. He cushioned Steven Pienaar’s pass with the outside of his left boot and spun to discover Burnley’s defenders in no hurry to close him.

On the face of it, his opponents had no reason to be especially concerned, 30 yards and a scrum of bodies separating Eto’o from the target.

One perfunctory swipe of his right boot later and the ball was scorching past Heaton and inside the far post.

That episode provides the defining image of Eto’s time with Everton. And despite his 14 goals in 41 matches for Chelsea – and a Champions League semi-final run with the Londoners – Everton are threaded through the English leg of Eto’o’s nomadic career.

He made his Premier League debut at Goodison Park, playing from start to finish in Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Everton in September 2013.

Eto’o winces at the memory and is similarly underwhelmed when recalling his own contribution coming off the bench for his first Everton appearance – coincidentally against Chelsea in August 2014 – when he scored but lost 6-3.

“That first game for Chelsea against Everton at Goodison was really tough, I found it difficult to get with the pace of the match,” says Eto’o.

“I wasn’t at my absolute best fitness wise and when you are not quite 100 per cent, you don’t have that same confidence you usually would.

“I missed a lot of easy chances which I would normally have put away or done something with.

“But overall I still count it as a good experience, because I learned quickly about English football and it was something new for me.”

Eto’o’s first Everton match was a bonkers affair.

The Blues were trailing 4-2 when he came on with 20 minutes to play. Eto’o scored six minutes later but promptly hurt his groin – ruling him out of the next game at West Bromwich Albion – and Chelsea scored twice more to bank the points.

“My Everton debut has to be a good memory, your first match for a famous club,” starts Eto’o, “but I got injured right at the start. I scored a goal and then got injured! But, yeah, it was all good.”

Eto’o had two years with nouveau riche Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia before going to Chelsea in 2013.

He finished up with one season at Qatar Sports Club, via Sampdoria in Italy and spells at Turkish clubs Antalyaspor and Konyaspor.

Eto’o declared he was hurtling towards a “new challenge” after calling it a day as a player, one of which is to work as an ambassador for the Qatari World Cup in 2022.

For all his exploits in domestic football, it is the feeling of scoring at the World Cup finals of 2002 and 2010 which Eto’o admits he “cannot put into words”.

His goal against Saudi Arabia 17 years ago settled the game but Cameroon exited at the group stage regardless.

Eto’o was crushed when his country suffered the same fate eight years later with him as captain, the forward’s goals both coming in 2-1 defeats, against Denmark and Holland.

The competition means everything to Eto’o and he is forthright about the idea of taking it to unexplored territories.

His year in Qatar has hardened the 38-year-old’s conviction over the country’s suitability to host football’s showpiece jamboree.

“I like everything that people would view as a bit different or out of the ordinary,” says Eto’o.

“I am certain the competition will go down as one of the best organised World Cups but it will be a joyous event, too.

“The temperature when the tournament is scheduled will be perfect for playing football and watching football.

“I am sure the competition will be full of quality and drama and passion. And for supporters who travel to Qatar, they will be right at the heart of the tournament, living and breathing it.

“It is the intention of everybody involved to stage a memorable event, which is remembered for only positive reasons.”

It is because Eto’o recalls his time with Everton in a favourable light that he still tracks the Club’s fortunes.

The player was blown away by the scale and intensity of Everton’s support and reckons those fans could be in for a good time of it before too long.

“The Everton fans are amazing, they are just incredible,” says Eto’o. “One of the best sets of supporters in England.

“In terms of the Club’s potential, it is not just what I believe or think.

“They are actually moving in an upward direction. You only have to look at the signings they have made this season.

“The owner has invested a lot of money because they have the ambition to go very far and they have the players and manager to do that.”

Everton’s captain today, Seamus Coleman, was a mainstay of the team when Eto’o was around – the only one of the African’s former Goodison colleagues who remains a regular.

"Seamus is a really loyal guy, with a lot of ability as a player,” says Eto’o.

“And he is a lovely lad, too. I’m very happy for him because he is one of the few players these days who spend their career at just one or two clubs.

"He has always decided to stay at Everton, despite having many offers to go elsewhere, and I’m happy for that.”

Eto’o, who played four times in Europe for the Club and netted in a 1-1 draw at Russian team Krasnodar, made his final Everton appearance in an FA Cup third round tie against West Ham United in January 2015.

He completed his switch to Serie A side Sampdoria three weeks later. The impression at the time was of an amicable divorce – Martinez was effusive about Eto’s exemplary training ground application and reserved special praise for the player’s European performances – and Eto’o confirms his separation from Everton was free of any animosity.

“I had another offer and I wasn’t featuring too much at Everton, so I went to speak to the gaffer, saying that for a player like me, I would have liked the chance to enjoy more playing time,” says Eto’o.

“I had less and less time left in the game. I was very happy with Everton but I had the chance to go and play in another league and enjoy my football a bit longer.

“He said that was okay and to think about it but my mind was made up and in the end he helped me with the transfer.”

Eto’s determination to rinse every drop from his career is consistent with the footballer who was motivated by aiding the collective effort over and above any personal goals.

That 2009-10 season at Inter perhaps revealed more about Eto’o than any other period of his 22-year career.

He was consistently deployed on the wing by Mourinho, asked to sacrifice himself to accommodate target man Diego Milito.

Eto’o could have kicked up a stink. Here was a centre-forward with an enviable scoring record and a silverware collection which would have filled a wheelbarrow.

Instead, he bought into Mourinho’s vision lock, stock and barrel and won a domestic Italian double and his third Champions League.

The season could not have climaxed in more fitting fashion than Eto’o laying on Milito’s second goal as Inter beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in the European final.

“I had a big desire throughout my career, I wanted to win trophies, this is how you are remembered, not for individual achievements,” explains Eto’o.

“I reckon that as you get older, you have to work even harder to keep up your fitness levels. Work hard every day and work harder than everyone else.

“It is not as easy as when you were a 16 or 17-year-old.

“You have to keep in shape and take more care of yourself, that’s the key to continuing as long as possible.”

Eto’o’s list of former bosses reads as a who’s who of managerial heavyweights.

Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Guus Hiddink and Rafael Benitez have all been in charge of the forward at various stages.

But Luis Aragones, the late former Atletico Madrid and Spain coach, is the man who, Eto’o insists, “changed my life”.

Aragones was managing Mallorca when the Spaniard gave Eto’o “the piece of advice that changed everything for me.”

“He said I had done all I could at Mallorca and to go to a bigger club to find my true level,” says Eto’o.

“He was like a father to me.”

Eto’o namechecks Romelu Lukaku as the teammate with whom he struck up a bond at Everton – “To me, back then, he was just a kid and starting out, but he was performing incredibly well and I’m happy to have shared a few months and some good times with him” – but picking from a bottomless well of illustrious colleagues across his career, he plumps for a goalkeeper as his favourite.

“I have many, many memories... but there is one teammate I always carry with me in my heart and that is Victor Valdes from Barcelona,” says Eto’o.

“I think we had the same character and personality. The same desire to win things, the same way of expressing ourselves."

Eto’o expressed himself too strongly for the Cameroonian FA’s liking on a few occasions and was banned for four competitive matches after participating in a players’ strike in 2011.

He cares deeply about football in Cameroon and scored 56 goals in 118 national team appearances – but fears his country’s hopes of advancing in Qatar will be harmed by background politicking.

The quintet of Algeria, Ivory Coast, Benin, Nigeria and Mali, claims Eto’o, are a different matter altogether and equipped to make statements on the global stage.

Samuel Eto’o has departed that exalted platform but his place in the annals of world football is secure.