Samuel Eto’o was back in Cameroon for a game in Yaoundé when his phone began to ring. He looked at the caller ID, didn’t recognise the number but picked it up anyway. It was Inter president Massimo Moratti. “Samu,” he said. “I want you to come and play for us. You’re a great player and from what they tell me a great person too. Everyone speaks highly of you. I’d be really happy to see you wear our shirt.”
Genuinely flattered by Moratti’s words and impressed with his manner, Eto’o found himself in quite the dilemma. You see, he’d already given his word to someone else and was reluctant to break it. Later in his biography Eto’o would reveal the identity of the person in question. It was the then Manchester City manager Mark Hughes. What should he do?
Moments after his conversation with Moratti had ended, Eto’o’s phone rang again. “Hello, it’s José,” the man on the other line said. It was of course Mourinho. “Do you recognise my voice?” “Sure I do mister, how are you?” Eto’o replied. “Fine,” he answered. “ I’m calling to find out what shirt you want. Is the No.9, OK?”
How could Eto’o say: ‘No’ to Mourinho? He couldn’t. He’d been charmed. Now came the hard part. Eto’o had to make a call of his own. “I had to tell the English,” he recalled to L’Équipe. “And it was really the hardest [thing to do]. But they understood.”
Four years later, there’s a growing sense, certainly after well-sourced reports that Manchester United will not be selling Wayne Rooney to Chelsea at any price, that Mourinho is considering dialing Eto’o’s number again.
The opportunity has presented itself after Anzhi Makhachkala’s president Konstantin Remchukov announced via Twitter that the club is to be drastically “reformatted”. Plans are afoot to cut Anzhi’s budget from £116m a year to a figure between £32m and £45m. As such Anzhi’s high earners will be sold. The decision coincidentally came just days after billionaire owner Suleiman Kerimov lost an estimated £325m in net worth.
The severance of a trade agreement between one of his business interests, the potash producer Uralkali, with a Belarusian company had serious ramifications for its valuation on the stock market. An estimated £5.5bn was wiped from it.
And so supporting a football club in Dagestan, to which the players commute from Moscow because their safety can’t be guaranteed on account of the turbulence in the region, presumably came to be seen for what it is: an entirely artificial construct built on frivolity that wasn’t worth the amount Kerimov was spending on it and, in particular, the wages of Eto’o, its star player, whom he made the highest paid footballer in the world in 2011 with a three-year contract said to be worth £17m a season after tax.
That figure is subject to conjecture. There have been reports, for instance, that a lot of the money Anzhi committed to Eto’o was front-loaded and his net salary for this year is £8.5m.
Kerimov had sought not too long ago to get him to extend beyond this season for less money, but for now at least, the Uralkali business and a general disillusionment with Anzhi after a poor start to the season appears to have inclined him to get Eto’o off the payroll. It seems his ‘golden exile’ is close to an end. The question is will Chelsea be his next destination?
Eto’o has expressed a desire to be reunited with Mourinho. “There is only one José Mourinho,” he said. “I have played under a lot of great coaches – but there is no other character like José. He is one of the best coaches in the world – and we had a lot of success together at Inter Milan. I would like to have the chance to play under him again because it is never boring when José is around. Chelsea are a great team. When we have all the offers on the table then I will discuss with my agent and see what my next step is.”
Mourinho has said “we will see what happens” and, one assumes, he’ll be asked to comment on the speculation further in Friday’s press conference. But given the focus on Rooney, it’s kind of been forgotten that he’s already spoken about Eto’o and at some length following his return to Chelsea this summer.
Reflecting on his first spell at Stamford Bridge back in June, he revealed: “We wanted Eto’o, he was our target. The owner was more than ready to bring Eto’o here because he was the player I wanted. Do you know why? Because he was the only player I could play with Drogba, changing the system for two strikers. But he was also ready to play with Drogba in the system we had at the time with three attacking players, with Eto’o coming from the sides, the same as I did at Inter with him. Sometimes there I was playing Eto’o and Milito in a 4-4-2 system, and when I wanted to play with three attackers I was playing Pandev, Milito and Eto’o.
“We wanted Eto’o. Mr Abramovich did everything to bring him [here] and Peter Kenyon did everything to bring him [here]. In the end, Barcelona said they didn’t want to sell, forget it. One more zero, one less zero, forget it… After that we went to other options and it became the Shevchenko option.”
There are a number of interesting things to take from this insight Mourinho has given us. First, is the historical nature of Chelsea’s interest in Eto’o and the high regard in which he was held not only by the Special One but also by Abramovich too.
Confirmation of this comes from the player’s biography. According to Eto’o, an approach pre-dated Mourinho’s appointment at Stamford Bridge in 2004. “[Claudio] Ranieri invited me to London to talk,” he wrote. “The journalists were onto me and I had to invent a story to throw them off. ‘I’m here to see my friend Geremi’, I said.” Chelsea weren’t to be deterred. They would try again and again and again. “[They] wanted me before Drogba’s arrival and afterwards too,” Eto’o claimed. “But Barça wanted €50m.”
It wouldn’t be until after he left Chelsea that Mourinho managed to get him in one of the deals of the century as Inter, aware that their best player—the then Serie A top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic—wanted a new challenge, made the most of Pep Guardiola’s interest in him as the Plan B he so craved and went to Barcelona with this proposition: ‘If you want him, give us €46m plus Eto’o in exchange’. “It was one of our greatest ever deals,” Moratti said.
Some were surprised that Eto’o and Mourinho could work together after the clashes between Barcelona and his Chelsea in the not too distant past. “I’d had a little problem with him some years earlier after a Champions League game,” Eto’o admitted. It was after Barcelona were knocked out in the Round of 16 in 2005. He’d called Mourinho “shameless” and added that “if this team wins the Champions League, it would make you want to retire. With so much money and so many players, what they do is not football.”
But Eto’o soon came to understand that he and Mourinho were in essence the same. They wanted the same thing: to win. “Jose is unique. Inimitable,” Eto’o said. “As an opponent he can piss you off, you can end up hating him, but if he’s on your side you know that he’s the maximum for how he motivates you.”
For example, after losing 3-1 to Catania prior to the second leg of Inter’s Round of 16 Champions League tie with Chelsea, Mourinho told Eto’o he’d never play for him again. “Are you no longer a striker?” he asked. Eto’o’s ‘unforgiveable’ crime was that he had set up Diego Milito for Inter’s only goal rather than shoot himself. “You had to shoot, idiot,” Mourinho raged. Taken aback, Eto’o told him to watch it again, which he did. A day later at training, Mourinho admitted: “You were right.”
Eto’o, however, appreciated that what Mourinho was trying to do here was get a reaction out of him and sharpen his instincts so that if he got a chance against Chelsea at the Bridge, he’d take it. Eto’o, as it happened, scored the only goal of the game, as Inter went through.
That evening he also put side before self, playing at Mourinho’s request as an auxiliary full-back when Inter were out of possession and then countering in support of Milito when they had the ball, a role he’d perform until the end of the season, which ended of course in Eto’o becoming the only player to win back-to-back trebles with two different clubs. “He is a team player, which is the most important thing,” Mourinho eulogised. “If there’s need to defend, he does it. If there’s need to attack, he attacks.”
One wonders in the event that he were to join Chelsea, whether Eto’o would be prepared to play as “almost a defender” again. When asked by Mourinho’s successor at Inter, Rafa Benitez, to carry on doing so, he refused on the basis that he was a striker and wanted to be one again. Stubborn, though not to a fault, he scored 37 goals in his second and final season at Inter, three more than Ronaldo had for the club in 1998.
Yet the appeal, if there genuinely still is one for Mourinho, probably relates back to why he wanted to bring Eto’o to the Bridge all those years ago; namely his opinion that “he was the only player I could play with Drogba.”
Drogba left Chelsea a year ago, but if Romelu Lukaku is his anointed ‘heir’ then perhaps Mourinho is of the opinion that Eto’o would be a great foil for him, just as he was for Milito at Inter playing on the left of a 4-2-3-1, which incidentally is Chelsea’s system today.
Eto’o’s arrival would mean one less space in the starting XI for Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata, Andre Schürrle and Kevin de Bruyne, but then that would also have been the case with the addition of Rooney.
Before anyone gets ahead of themselves, there are some not insignificant issues to consider here too. Like, for instance, Eto’o’s age. He’s 32, so the question is: how many years has he got left and is he already on the decline?
Eto’o has scored 25 league goals in two years for Anzhi. Over the same period his very talented yet less illustrious teammate Lacina Traoré has found the net as many times while Yura Movsiyana has managed two more for Krasnodar and Spartak. Should much be read into that? After all, Anzhi are a team that has been thrown together and have had a high turnover of coaches which doesn’t help and Eto’o was playing as a No.10 at times last season.
But what about his motivation? Many feel that by going into a ‘golden exile’ at 30, Eto’o was satisfied with his career. He felt fulfilled and had nothing left to achieve. The counter argument he’s made to that is by moving to Anzhi and becoming the best paid player in the world he made a powerful statement to the effect that there’s no limit to what any kid growing up in Africa can do or earn. Winning things for Anzhi was important, but his primary motivation appears to have been symbolic.
Whether Eto’o can be re-motivated and rebooted elsewhere remains to be seen. There’s no reason why, like Drogba, he can’t produce to a high level into his mid-30s.
The biggest obstacle of all, however, are his wages. Eto’o will have to take a pay cut if he leaves Anzhi. Of that there’s no doubt. Chelsea, you get the impression, would also have to move on Fernando Torres and Demba Ba to make room for him. A return to Inter also looks improbable. Though Eto’o still has a home in Milan and, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, his wife and kids continue to live there, his former club’s wage ceiling is now €4.5m a season, which is just over a third of what he used to take home while he was at San Siro.
Would he accept a contract like that? Some have quipped that, for him, money surely is no longer an issue. Time will tell.