Samuel Eto'o stared anxiously around Madrid's bustling Barajas airport. The dream was not supposed to start like this. Aged 14, without a word of Spanish, he had flown there alone from Cameroon. "I was so proud," he says. "I was very small but I had the heart of a lion. My heart was so big I wanted to eat the world."
Real Madrid had recognised the precocious talent of the prodigy who played in Cameroon's Second Division at 13 and offered him a trial, but their representative was not prepared to hang around, and Eto'o was left to work out for himself how to get out of arrivals.
"I was confused. The flight was delayed and nobody waited for me," he recalls. "So I found another black guy and asked him if he knew where the training ground of Real Madrid was. The black guy recognised me because I had been in the newspapers. He took me by public bus to the training ground."
At Madrid's Ciudad Deportivo, or "Sport City", Eto'o showed his passport to security, communicated by gesture that he had come to play football and walked calmly on to the field where the first team were training to introduce himself. He was not to know it, but this neglect was to be typical of Madrid's attitude to him.
On Wednesday, Madrid fans will watch in envy as their former player, now thrice African Footballer of the Year, leads Barcelona's awesome attack in the Champions' League final against Arsenal. Eto'o is clear about his role.
"It's my job to score goals," he says bluntly as he lounges back on a blue leather couch in a Nou Camp executive lounge, casually, yet expensively elegant in Dolce & Gabbana street wear and factory ripped jeans. It is a task at which Eto'o excels. He currently heads Spain's scorers' chart with 25 league goals, adding to the 24 he netted last season.
Yet Eto'o's own job description is misleading, at least according to his coach at Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard. "I consider him as a striker who comes from the midfield, rather than being a man of the box," Rijkaard explains. "Eto'o is a more creative player. He drops back to retrieve the ball and he dribbles with it, too. He's unique for a striker but for me, the most important thing is that when he sees moments of need for the team he doesn't hesitate to help out. He even comes back and defends..."
But goals are undoubtedly Eto'o's trademark. Goals from inside and outside the box, screamers from beyond the area. Goals scored with both feet and his head. Goals from the penalty spot. Crucial, critical goals. Barça will be looking to Eto'o on Wednesday, but he is not feeling the pressure.
"We know there is expectation, but we feel no pressure," he said. "Our objective is just to go on winning so we won't slip. We enter each game thinking that we can win. It's always necessary for a little luck too, not just in football but in life. Liverpool won the Champions' League last season, Porto the year before. They were not favourites."
He added: "We have players here that can beat anyone. And I mean anyone. But we know we have to work and respect the rival teams like Arsenal. We always do that. Rival teams know that. We are not an arrogant team."
Barça have already eliminated one English team, their victory over Chelsea giving Eto'o immense satisfaction.
"I was really happy that we beat Chelsea," he said. "We were so disappointed last season to lose to them because we felt that we had done enough to win. So justice was served this year. We played a serious and tactical game and we knew exactly how we needed to play and we did it well.
"We have matured over the year and people have seen that. We learnt a lot last season and we now know how to defend properly. We've also learnt how to fight in order to get what we want."
Barça are favourites to win a second European Cup, but Eto'o is maintaining an even keel. "People say that we're the best team in Europe, but we haven't proved it yet," he said. "We'll just keep working. The ambience is perfect. We have a good mixture of all nationalities and I see that as a good thing. We are all ingredients in the mix, and good ingredients make the best food. We enjoy being together; it doesn't matter where we come from.
"I've never played with a team so together as Barça is at the moment. This is just the basis of good play. We kid around like in any other locker-room. We had a great team spirit when I was at Mallorca, but we never had a team that could have won the Champions' League. Just to reach the Champions' League with Mallorca was a great, great achievement - probably my best in football until now."
Eto'o has been questioned relentlessly about the prospect of Thierry Henry joining him in Catalonia, but he has said that he feels anything but threatened by the speculation.
"All great players are welcome in Barcelona and Henry is a great player," he said. "If Henry joins us, then Barça will become even more difficult to beat. Henry has the quality to play in any team in the world. I like English football and I watch Henry on Saturday afternoons because we don't play then. He plays to a very high level and can play in more than one position."
Racism is another preoccupation of Eto'o's interviewers, even more so after he threatened to leave the field during a game in Zaragoza in February after suffering racist abuse from a section of the crowd.
"I don't speak any more about racism. I've spoken enough about it," he said tersely. "I did what I had to do. I have no regrets. The politicians have to make decisions now, not the footballers. It can't go on. We should be allowed to play football without racism."
Would he consider moving if the racism continued in Spain?
"I'm happy here in Spain," he said. "I've been here since I've been 14. The people like me in Barcelona. They respect me. It's important to feel respected."
How Real Madrid must regret not showing him the same kind of respect when he arrived in Spain a decade ago.Reuse content