32 players to watch, March 2010

Player To Watch #17: Samuel Eto’o

Number 17: Samuel Eto’o

Country: Cameroon

Club: Inter Milan, Italian Serie A

Position: Forward

American Professional Sport-Based “Soulmate”: Zach Parise, Forward, New Jersey Devils

At 15, Samuel Eto’o was plucked from his home in Cameroon, labeled a phenom and brought to the capital of Spain to battle for playing time with one of the most successful soccer clubs in the history of the world. At 17, Eto’o was dubbed a failure by Madrid and loaned away to second division La Liga side Leganes. At 18, he still hadn’t made a breakthrough and was offered what many felt would be a final reprieve in the form of a loan to Mallorca. Many young players may have wilted under the pressure, especially those with the high expectations that will accompany any player who makes their first World Cup appearance at 17. Eto’o responded with the fire and drive that has made him famous. He played angry, inspired football.

Five years later, all questions about Eto’o were seemingly answered. At 23, he left Mallorca its all-time leading scorer, having scored 54 goals in five seasons, and in 2003, on the heels of a shining performance in the Confederations Cup, Eto’o was named African footballer of the year. A pacy and more physical than he’s given credit for striker, Eto’o’s tireless work rate and precision around the net earned him many transfer looks in the summer of 2004.

Not deterred by questions about his off-field behavior and attitude, or by his failed first-go-round, Real Madrid came calling again, but having already secured its quota of non-EU players, it was not meant to be and Eto’o was swallowed up by La Liga rivals Barcelona for a relatively painless 24 million pounds. By the age of 25, Eto’o had with authority stamped out his presence at Camp Nou and on the international scene, helping Barca win the title with 24 league goals in 2004-05. Eto’o then cemented his status as one of the world’s most feared strikers with 32 total goals in a 2005-06 campaign that saw Barca win the Champions League at season’s end. Eto’o continued with Barca for three more campaigns, scoring 108 league goals and 16 Champion’s League goals to compliment his large role in helping Barca win the first treble for any Spanish League team in 2009. On the international scene, Eto’o was a similar giant—helping Cameroon qualify for three World Cups in four tries and becoming the leading scorer in the history of the African Cup of Nations, which he has helped The Indomitable Lions win on two occasions. His reward for this prowess? Being scuttled aside by Pep Guardiola, who decided that he would rather fit the square peg of Zlatan Ibrahimovi? into the round hold that is the speedy, dynamic Joga Bonito Barca attack. Eto’o has landed on his feet, scoring nine times in all competitions for his new club, Italian Giants Inter Milan, with whom he signed in July. While a brutal knee injury a few years ago appears to have taken its toll on Eto’o’s pace, it has not prevented him from being one of the most lethal finishers in the game, and it certainly has not taken its toll on the heart that helped him ward off the failure he faced early in his career, and is primarily responsible for him being considered one of the hardest working strikers in football.

Eto’s soulmate, New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise, knows all too well the weight of expectation. A brilliant young player from the hockey hotbed of Minneapolis, Parise scored a Minnesota high school record 145 goals in his final two seasons of high school hockey, and by 20, he had been nominated for Hockey’s Heisman Trophy twice, garnered All-American honors at the University of North Dakota, and led the United States to the IHF World Junior Championship. Concern about his size and strength at the highest level forced him to the middle of the first round of the NHL draft. It was there that New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello decided that his work-rate, grit, immense pace and technical ability overwhelmed the concerns about his size. Lamoriello needed a scorer—after all, the Devils had won three Stanley Cups in the years leading up to the selection of Parise behind the greatest goaltender of all time, scoring few goals and generally playing a brand of hockey (the neutral-zone-trap) that literally makes watching The English Patient feel like Die Hard With A Vengeance, and the NHL had responded in turn, instituting new rules in the game designed specifically to undercut the effectiveness of the Devils trademark brand of hockey.

Parise’s freshman campaign in the NHL, which followed the lockout season, was moderately successful (14 goals), but his work since has been vindication of Lamoriello’s belief and a resounding answer to critics. Seasons of 62 and 65 points (goals plus assists) followed, and last year Parise tallied 94 points, fifth best in the NHL, with 46 goals, third in the league behind Jeff Carter and the great Alexander Ovechkin. Parise accomplished the breakout season of last year with little acclaim, and skeptics convinced that he could not maintain this level of success due to his lack of physical ability remained. Parise has answered these critics with hard-work, speed, skill and most of all, with heart and grit. What’s better—his in- league reputation as one of the hardest working men in hockey has finally won out—as his Olympics performance and game-tying goal against Canada in the Gold Medal game have made the diminutive forward with the oversized heart a household name.

Like Eto’o, Parise was already well-respected among his peers and in the minds of the astute fans. The Olympics represented a final leap. Like Eto’o, Parise, who has tallied 65 points this season to follow the last, has answered the critics with pure performance. Like Parise, Eto’o this summer gets a chance to leap into the consciousness of the once-every-four-years, and with a forgiving group (Netherlands, Japan, Denmark)—he’ll likely just use “pure performance” when the lights shine the brightest to ensure heart and grit with a healthy side of talent, win out.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com or @nwb_USMNT.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Amy

    Nice job Neil !!! Maybe one of my favorite players in the World !!! And I like him better on Inter– even though he’s been tepid out of the gate– because I’m not a big Barca fan– always seemed like a side everyone was “too eager” to label chic to like 🙂