Think of Samuel Eto'o, and you'll probably think of goals, cash, and more goals. But as Jamie Lindsay reports, Eto'o has given a number of talented youngsters their start in the game.
Samuel Eto’o. Arguably the greatest footballer Africa has produced, a player who has consistently demonstrated his place amongst the best forwards in European football and three times Champions League winner. His career has been impressive and Eto'o once again stole the headlines recently when he completed a reported €20.5m per season move to Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. But the Cameroonian striker has also delved into the world of charitable work in his home continent and established a foundation for malnourished and uneducated children to seek aid and opportunity.
The Foundation Samuel Eto’o (FSE) has outlined these three principles for the scheme:
- "Ensure the minimum conditions for survival and health that will permit further development, in our fight to eradicate poverty.
- Provide quality basic education, they can complete and will serve as a tool to achieve a secure social integration.
- Promote the opportunity to develop the individual abilities of each child through training grants and aid to support their cultural activities or sports skills."
The most interesting aspect is the footballing project, with the inaugural academy based in the coastal town of Kribi. Prior to the opening, Eto’o expressed his desire was to expand the idea and locate more academies across the country, stating his yearning to offer opportunities to deprived children:
"As a footballer, the best I can do for youths in Cameroon is to give them a platform where they can learn how to play football and make a living out of it, and be successful in life, for a better tomorrow."
The plan is to recruit the 300 best players who are aged 10 to 13 and train them in specialised camps to help maximise their potential "The most promising boys will be moved to Europe for professional careers" the founder clarified.
Eto’o used his contacts wisely when he created the FSE in 2006, and managed to get his then club Barcelona to agree a partnership with the football academy. FSE’s briefing of the commitment is: “The organisation maintains an agreement with FC Barcelona, which enables a complete player-team harmony in this act of solidarity.”
Both parties were in agreement that this project was firstly a good cause, and secondly both could reap the potential successes.
Since then 16 African players have been offered a chance to train at the remarkable La Masia complex, with many of these kids coming to fruition immediately. Prior to this summer only one, Paul Tina Tina, had moved on, with a switch to Inter Milan.
Many of the youngsters have made an impression in the ‘Juvenil’ scene, but whether they can continue that form once they reach 18 is the issue. The majority of these players are bigger (almost twice the height), stronger and faster than their opponents at junior level, which naturally gives them an advantage. Players like Gael Etock, Jean Marie Dongou, Armand Ella and Lionel Enguene have been standout players, but once their peers develop the necessary technique, can these Africans take it to the next level?
It is already been said privately that the youth sector are contemplating the link-up and want more control, and this summer no African players were granted a youth contract out of the 80 that were signed by Los Blaugrana. As well as this, three youngsters, including the humorously named Nelson Mandela, were released.
Furthermore the first player to graduate from the system, Gael Etock, has recently left Spain and joined Sporting Clube de Portugal, after initial interest from Chelsea. Etock was seen as the latest star of the cantera, somebody who was playing with people three years his senior at one stage and was expected to progress to the Atletic side last season. Stagnation in development as well as his teammate’s improvement saw the club willingly let him leave. Will his case become the trend or the exception?
The FSE have wisely inserted a clause into all the players’ contracts that move to Catalonia, which sees a certain percentage of the players transfer fee return to the foundation, which will instantly be put back into the project.
The last two contract renewals have only been for a year, which is a contrast to the initial four year agreement that expired at the end of the 2009/10 season. With Eto’o and Barca in court in recent times over unpaid money, as well as him no longer being at the club, the collaboration’s future has looked in doubt. However the last extension was agreed when the striker visited the Ciutat Esportiva training complex last October. He confirmed he had a meeting with Sporting Director Andoni Zubizarreta and important men in the youth sector regarding the partnership. There also seems to be good news on the horizon and the suggestion from a report in Spain indicates a new deal will be signed in September.
This month has seen the latest developments of the FSE which has expanded its foundation to Gabon, which is good timing with the African Cup of Nations being hosted there in 2012. Eto’o addressed the locals with a clear message:
“I came to Libreville among other things to kick off the La Foundation Eto’o in Gabon. I’ll be coming back with my fellow African players Didier Drogba and Michael Essien to inaugurate the foundation very soon. I’ll be coming with many of my footballer friends to raise the funds for the organisation so our little brothers could have pleasure playing football and studying as well in their environment.”
He might now be playing in Russia, where he will certainly be branded a sell-out, but what hopefully will be remembered about Eto’o is he has given back to his country. Not only is he an icon, but also a pioneer. The FSE is more than a football project, but the opportunities it offers in sport will make it easier for these young Africans to get a break, and Eto’o is an advocate of people giving chances:
“I couldn’t have made it this far if someone hadn’t rendered the help I needed then. A certain rich man gave me the chance to play football and you can see where I am today. So it’s my turn to help those who need it to succeed in their career.”