Microphone in hand, wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Campions" (Champions in Catalan) and draped in the Cameroon flag, Samuel Eto'o strode up the pitch to the halfway line ready to make his speech at Barcelona's championship celebration party at the Nou Camp last May. Most other members of the squad had limited their contributions to the obligatory Barcelona slogan, "Visca Barça, Visca Catalunya" (Long live Barça. Long live Catalunya) to the fans, but not Eto'o, the man whose 24 goals had fired Barça to their first league title in six years.
Instead he broke out into a chant of "Madrid, cabron, saluda el campeon" (Madrid, you bastards, hail the champions). It was what every Barça fan - and probably most of the players, too - really felt inside but something that no one had dared to say. After years of having to live in the shadow of the arch-enemy, a club whose renowned self-confidence had mutated into unrivalled pomposity under president Florentino Perez, Barça had at last got one over their rivals from the capital.
The following day Eto'o hastily convened a news conference to apologise for his outburst, although it did not stop him being fined £8,000 by the Spanish FA for his comments. "I started to sing and got carried away," he explained. "If it hadn't been for Real Madrid I would never have got this far, I have spat on the plate that fed me."
The antagonism between Real and Barça with its complex historical, political and nationalistic undercurrents is of course well documented, but for Samuel Eto'o it is personal and tonight's clasico at the Bernabeu will mean more to him than perhaps any other player on the pitch.
Eto'o, you see, began his career at Real Madrid. He was spotted as a 15-year-old by one of their scouts when he was playing for Cameroon in a youth tournament and was persuaded to leave his homeland to sign for the Spanish giants in 1996. But when the pennyless skinny striker arrived at Barajas airport there was no one from Real to meet him and he had to persuade a taxi driver to take him to the Bernabeu. It was the first in a series of tactless acts in Real's handling of the player that have come back to haunt the club.
With Raul and Fernando Morientes the first-choice strike force at Real, Eto'o was quickly loaned out to humble second-division neighbours Leganes to ply his trade, then to Espanyol and finally to Mallorca. Eto'o thrived with the islanders as a proverbial big fish in a small sea. His electric pace, cool finishing, fiery temper and unerring commitment to the cause made him an immediate favourite with the fans and the club decided to pay a record £4m to buy a 50 per cent share in him from Real in 2001.
He was elevated to hero status when he steered Mallorca to victory in the 2003 Spanish Cup final, scoring two virtuoso goals and winning the penalty in the 3-0 victory over Recreativo Huelva that gave the club their first major trophy.
But Eto'o reserved his best performances for games against his former club, Real. He inspired Mallorca to a 4-0 demolition of the nine-times European champions in the Cup quarter-finals and ripped them to shreds in the league in a 5-1 win at the Bernabeu. He scored another two goals against them in Mallorca's 3-2 win the following season, looking up to the presidential box where Perez was sitting after he had scored his second and pointing first to himself and then to the grass in a gesture clearly meant to indicate that he believed he still deserved a place at the club.
Perez ignored the plea and refused to use the club's option to buy him when the cash-strapped islanders said they needed to sell their prize striker to raise funds. It was a big mistake.
Eto'o responded to the slight with a mixture of anger and disappointment that drove him into the arms of arch-rivals Barcelona. Construction magnate Perez had finally met his match. Only a few weeks before he had promised Real fans that Eto'o would never play for the Catalans, but the player's refusal to budge and Barça's preparedness to pay the £16m needed to buy Real out meant that he ended up at the Nou Camp.
For Barca it was a brilliant, if expensive, coup. Real tried to divert the attention of fans who questioned the wisdom of letting such a dangerous player decamp to their arch-rivals by using the cash to sign Michael Owen. But while Real spluttered their way through to a second trophyless season, it was the reject Eto'o who inspired Barcelona to their first league title in six years. Revenge was sweet, the sweetest moment of all coming when he led Barça to a 3-0 demolition of Real at the Nou Camp in November.
Eto'o is expecting a hostile reception when he returns to the Bernabeu tonight, but few doubt that Real will be more worried about his visit than he will. "I think it would be hard to find a more motivated player," says the Barça midfielder Xavi. "He has got a past at Real. They offered him the promise of everything and then they took it away. They didn't let him succeed and now he is with us and he is one of the best players in the world."Reuse content