Ronaldinho may take the star billing, but ask Barcelona's socios to name their best player and you're more likely to hear the name of Samuel Eto'o. Privately, many team-mates agree. "Eto'o always wants to be the best, even in training," says one. "His desire to win is immense... He is the one who usually converts the chances that Deco, Messi and Ronaldinho create. He's the killer."
"My job is to score goals," Eto'o says bluntly, yet even his own job description is misleading, at least according to the Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard.
"I consider him as a striker who comes from the midfield, rather than a Van Nistelrooy who is a man of the box. Eto'o is a more creative player. He drops back to retrieve the ball and he dribbles with it, too. He is 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..." Rijkaard was far less complimentary after Eto'o refused to come on as a substitute in the 2-0 win over Racing Santander on Sunday.
Aside from a nine-minute cameo 10 days ago, Barça have been without Eto'o since he limped off in Bremen last September. Without him, they have been shorn of their most potent attacker. Eidur Gudjohnsen and Javier Saviola have filled in, yet their contributions were insipid compared with the three-times African footballer of the year.
Eto'o's goals tally in club football has risen progressively each season: 10, 19, 21, 28; last season he was top scorer in Spain for the first time. Yet it is the quality of those goals rather than the quantity which is crucial. In Barcelona's distinguished history, nobody has scored more goals in their first two seasons than Eto'o and only two of those goals have come in games when Barça have not won or drawn. Liverpool, Barcelona opponents next week, have been watching his recuperation closely.
Cracks in Eto'o's relationship with Barcelona started to show last August. He had always insisted that he was not envious as Ronaldinho picked up individual awards, but privately he thinks otherwise. Last August Eto'o became embroiled in the club's internal power struggles. In 2003, when Joan Laporta became the president, the Catalans were close to defaulting on the wages of their bloated and underperforming first-team squad. Working closely with his side-kick Sandro Rosell, Laporta turned the club's fortunes around. Signing Eto'o was a big part of the revival and Eto'o is seen as Laporta's man. Then the pair fell out and Rosell left the club in 2005, but his influence is still causing instability.
Asked whether the team could isolate itself from events at board level, Eto'o replied: "Staying unaffected is impossible. It's a pity because after having brought back enthusiasm to the fans, it's a shame things can destabilise. I hope it's sorted out quickly."
Nothing was sorted, and Rosell - the man credited with bringing Ronaldinho to Barça - courts allies in the media and among fans, possibly intending to challenge Laporta's presidency.
Injured, Eto'o's focus shifted to recuperating from the knee problem and his recovery confounded doctors, not least because he travelled to Morocco, Majorca, Saudi Arabia, Paris, Cameroon, Algeria and Tenerife while injured. These journeys caused him to miss key hospital appointments, drawing more criticism from Rosell's allies in the media.
Most Barça observers still expected Eto'o to be the saviour of their less than spectacular -season, but the Cameroonian made no promises. "Football is my life and I have missed the team more than they have missed me," Eto'o said on the eve of his return. Many disagree. "I felt helpless watching the team against Chelsea. That was my worst night, including the moment that I incurred the injury. I aim to return stronger and I'm looking ahead with no anxiety."
Eto'o's refusal to come on as a substitute on Sunday has created serious anxiety among Barcelona fans ahead of key games against Valencia and Liverpool. Team-mates are also concerned, more so after Eto'o yesterday criticised the coach Rijkaard, Ronaldinho and Rosell.
Before his injury, Eto'o had much to smile about. Barça had renewed his contract until 2010 on a basic of £68,000 a week, rising to just over £100,000 after bonuses. This was intended to reassure him as constant speculation linked Barcelona with Thierry Henry. Now he is rumoured to be part of a swap deal with the Frenchman.
Eto'o has always maintained that he is happy in Barcelona, but his latest comments suggest otherwise. He may move and Anglophile comments have littered his interviews.
"What I love about England is that the fans have great respect for the players on and off the pitch," the striker said recently. "I don't have any problems in Barcelona, but at other places it's different..."
The Cameroonian was referring to racism, to which he has the victim at several Spanish grounds, yet it might be politics and ego which drive him away from the European champions.Reuse content