Retirement in international football is rarely the ultimate that the name suggests. Whilst some peacefully ride off into the sunet, having made an informed decision based upon previous achievements or physical ability to manage so much football, others see retirement as a temporary state – a cry for help; an attention-seeking hissy fit; a message to the manager.
In African football, this form of non-permanent ‘calling it a day” is perhaps more pronounced. More common to have a single or duo of stars amongst a squad who are less equally-blessed with talent, the propensity for the Europe-based players to withdraw themselves from their national pool in the name of some sort of slightly misguided moral is not rare, with the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo and Kevin Prince-Boateng of Ghana frequently flitting between retirement and non-retirement over the past few seasons. Whether it be pay disputes, not being picked for a squad or simply not seeing your national team duty as a worthy use of your very important time, all have been justified reasons by players of their decision. There has been a retirement this week, however, that appears to defied all of the above stereotypes.
This week, Samuel Eto’o retired from international football. The all-time record goalscorer for Cameroon and international icon – not just of his country but the whole of African football – decided he would call it a day following the announcement from FECAFOOT that he would not be a part of proceedings when Cameroon take on Democratic Republic of Congo next week.
An international career that spanned 16 years, Samuel Eto’o has achieved things that will probably never be replicated with such consistent brilliance for decades. Two-time AFCON winner; five-time African player of the year; Olympic gold medallist; two-time AFCON top goal scorer; AFCON all-time record goalscorer and Cameroon all-time record goalscorer – and that’s just the national team awards. Domestically he has three La Liga titles; two Copa del Reys; one Serie A titles; two Coppa Italias; one Club World Cup and three Champions League medals – in a career in which he represented four of the biggest clubs in the history of European football. In terms of pure arithmetic, this man is incredible, and there are few more decorated and consistently incredible footballers across such an array of clubs than Samuel Eto’o – not just in Africa but the history of football.
For Cameroon, he was a superstar. 118 caps and 56 goals, they have lost a talent that was already in the national team hall of game by the time he was in his mid-twenties, as he became a player that transcended the confines of the Indomitable Lions to become a representation of African football itself. The individual awards aren’t really enough to sum this up, as he became a poster boy from Johannesburg to N’Djamena for young, budding football players to aspire to, acting as a source of hope that one day an African country would live up to the potential that lies dormant within it. Whilst not keen to engage in one of those futile debates as to who was the “best ever”, Eto’o is very much a justifiable argument amongst the likes of Abedi Pele, George Weah and Roger Milla.
But intriguingly, the role that Eto’o played is perhaps not quite as revered in his home nation as you would might think, despite the plethora of medals that are hanging in his cabinet. Some would say that Roger Milla is more sacred than Eto’o, particularly when measure in terms of the importance of the goals that he scored, despite having inferior numbers and representing a less inspiring selection of clubs.
Indeed, the fact that Samuel Eto’o’s retirement hasn’t been met with much mourning tells you all you need to know. Whilst he has never been a participator in the peripatetic retirement cycles of his continental colleagues, the series of misdemeanours that he has been involved in with the national team has been argued to have harnessed their progress, and possibly playing a role in the decline that the national team has seen over the past four to six years.
The assault of photographers, refusal to turn up to games, interventions by the Prime Minister, conspiracies of the refusal of teammates to pass to him – all incidents that Eto’o has been involved in since Cameroon’s last successful tournament in 2008 – and all stuff that has contributed to the “can’t play with him/can’t play without him” dichotomy that has controlled the team and precursored all events associated with them.
There are numerous examples of a team improving after their biggest name leaves. The likes of Theirry Henry leaving Arsenal saw a massive weight lifted off the shoulders of the team, as such simple decisions such as which player to pass to were no longer laced with the automatic desire to look for your talisman. The team can be free and expansive, and no longer moulded by the presence of a certain name in the dressing room.
What it eventually boils down to is that Samuel Eto’o needed to retire. If Cameroon want to return to the successful days of the early-2000s when Eto’o was starting out, they needed to get rid of the man who played a primary role in that, so they can start afresh. Clearly a tremendous talent and a glorious player, Eto’o’s ability to inflict the same damage he once did has significantly decreased, replaced by an ability to crush squad unity via his massive ego.
Of course, there are a number of caveats to this, of which the most prominent being what happens if Cameroon do not go onto better things. There problems go far deeper than Samuel Eto’o – namely the complete lack of central playmaker in the whole of their national pool amongst general issues with FECAFOOT themselves – so an unsuccessful qualifying campaign for AFCON 2015 in a tough group could spell trouble for the future of this squad. Plus there is always the possibility that Eto’o has joined the Adebayor/Prince-Boateng club for manipulating retirements later than normal, and may perhaps be receiving a phone call form Paul Biya asking him to return in January. As Firdose Moonda points out in her ESPN column this week, the temptation to gazump Rigobert Song and his 19 more appearances for Cameroon may also tempt Eto’o, making his retirement all-but the “definitive” state that he claimed it would be.
But, for now at least, the Eto’o era has ended. From here, what we should be hoping for is two things. A return to the formidability of an Indomitable Lions team that once was, and for Samuel Eto’o to be forever revered for the wonderful contribution he has made to African football, as one of the greatest players the continent will ever see.
By Sam Crocker (@sam_crock)