Eto'o the England fan plays to the crowd as date with striker's latest suitor dawns

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The Independent Football

Two shop assistants stand motionless by the new Prada range in an upmarket boutique on Diagonal, the great avenue which dissects Barcelona. When a lithe figure wearing a Barça tracksuit enters they shoot him a filthy look - football fans are definitely not welcome in its exclusive environment. Suddenly they are all smiles, recognising the visitor as Samuel Eto'o, the Cameroonian striker. The female who looked ready to buzz security is now keen to pose for a photo with him.

Eto'o may be eager to see the latest Italian threads, but his stay has to be brief. His team leave for Valencia in 35 minutes and if he is not careful his Mercedes will be towed away from the disabled parking bay outside. On and off the field, Eto'o is used to living life at speed. So far this month he has been to Cairo, Paris (where he keeps a house), Valencia, and Lagos, in a private jet, to be crowned the African Footballer of the Year for the third successive time. No other player has achieved this. Tonight, he will be in London SW6.

Nou Camp, four days after his shopping trip, and Eto'o has just finished training. Valencia did not go well. Despite Eto'o's return after a three-week African Nations' Cup absence, Frank Rijkaard's side suffered a second successive league defeat after winning their 14 previous matches. Worse, the press are suggesting a rift between Eto'o and Rijkaard over the Cameroonian's failure to follow his coach's orders.

If there is pressure, it does not show on the 24-year-old. He may not wear the perma-smile of his team-mate Ronaldinho, but he is relaxed and talkative, even if speculation linking him with a move to Chelsea is starting to grate.

"The interest of Chelsea?" he says, relaxing into a big sofa. "It has not stopped. Once we play it will calm down. But if we beat Chelsea and draw Juventus in the next round they will say Fabio Capello wants me."

La Liga's 20-goal top scorer is looking forward to playing against his rumoured suitors, though. "These two teams mean so much to football at the moment. We're better than last year. [Lionel] Messi is now playing and we are more experienced. We're more physical too, if we need to be. We respect Chelsea and know that they are strong with great individuals like Shaun Wright-Phillips. He's the son of Ian Wright, you know.

"What Barça have to do is play the two games as if they were finals, because really they are like finals. But this game will not decide who wins the Champions' League like some are saying. How can it?"

He does not speak English - the interview is in Spanish - and he has rarely visited the country, but Eto'o is something of an Anglophile. "I like English football crowds. The English have great respect for their players and the atmosphere was great at Stamford Bridge last year. They roared on their team. It's always like that in England.

"It's not like that here. It's important that football should be played in grounds where the fans roar their teams. The fans in Spain love football in a different way - it's not a class thing, the fans are just different. What I love about England is that the fans have great respect for the players on and off the pitch. I don't have any problems in Barcelona and I've had no problems in Madrid either, but at other places it's different."

Places like Getafe or Zaragoza, where Eto'o has suffered racist abuse. Unlike other black players in Spain who play down the situation, Eto'o is candid when talking about racism. "It has reduced a little [in Spain] and that's good for football. It seemed to be the fashion last year and in some stadiums, like Getafe, it is still a problem. It shouldn't happen at all."

Eto'o winces when talk switches to his country's failure to reach the World Cup finals for the first time in 20 years, and their recent African Nations' Cup elimination. He may have finished as the tournament's top scorer in Egypt, but his missed penalty against the Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals meant Cameroon went out. In October, a 1-1 draw with Egypt in their final qualifier was insufficient for qualification for Germany. It would have been different had Pierre Wome not missed an injury-time penalty.

"Wome asked to take it," says Eto'o, still irked by accusations that he lost his nerve and dodged the spot-kick. "It was a pity because it would have been something special, important and beautiful for me and all my country to see Cameroon in the World Cup finals. But I also believe that you can and must learn from your errors and sometimes when you emerge from something bad in your life you come out much stronger and more determined."