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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

A big contract comes with big questions for Samuel Eto'o

The four-time African player of the year has a lucrative new deal with a Russian club, but will he be playing too far out of the soccer world's spotlight?

August 24, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o celebrates a goal against Genoa during an Italian Serie A soccer match at San Siro Stadium in Milan.
Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o celebrates a goal against Genoa… (Daniel Dal Zennaro / EPA )

When he was a boy in Douala, Cameroon, it is doubtful that Samuel Eto'o Fils could have located Makhachkala, Russia, on a map.

Even the most dedicated geography teacher would have had no reason to introduce the youth to the bleak city on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

But on Thursday, Samuel Eto'o, as he is more commonly known, will be winging his way north, leaving behind Inter Milan and Italy to join his new soccer club, FC Anzhi Makhachkala.

He does so at age 30 as one of the most decorated African players of all time. He does so because Suleiman Kerimov, billionaire owner of the unheralded Russian team, is willing to pay Eto'o $14.2 million a year for the next three years.

Reports out of Italy this week suggested that Eto'o would earn twice that much, but although they proved erroneous, according to the BBC, it is still a sizable sum even if it does not make Eto'o the highest-paid soccer player on the planet, topping Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.

Still, Etoo'o's pay translates to $273,673 a week, or, as one story out of Moscow put it Wednesday, about what it would take the average resident in Makhachkala's poverty-stricken and violence-ridden Dagestan region several decades to earn.

Add it all up and it brings new meaning to a thought voiced by Eto'o on his website, where he talks about his childhood dream of riding the soccer train out of poverty and out of Africa.

"I fell asleep poor and woke up wealthy," he said.

Eto'o was wealthy long before he signed on the dotted line Wednesday, officially becoming an Anzhi Makhachkala player.

An Olympic gold medal won with Cameroon in Sydney in 2000, three European Champions League titles won with Barcelona in 2006 and 2009 and with Inter Milan in 2010, and numerous other league and cup championships won in Spain and Italy have long since made the four-time African player of the year and two-time African Nations Cup winner rich beyond his boyhood dreams.

It does, therefore, raise the question: Why would Eto'o abandon a top-class club in Italy's Serie A to join a club with no pedigree whatsoever in a fledgling and still-struggling Russian league?

It can't be the money, can it?

It is, after all, only about half of what the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez is paid and a third of what Formula One driver Fernando Alonso receives, but even $1 million a month does not seem to be enough to essentially abandon center stage, as Eto'o is doing.

He also is exposing himself to the racism prevalent in Russian soccer. Sure, Eto'o came in for more than his share of despicable racist taunts in Spain and Italy, but he will find that the situation in Russia is as bad if not worse.

One of his new Anzhi Makhachkala teammates, World Cup winner Roberto Carlos of Brazil, has been the target of deplorable behavior by fans. As recently as March, he was offered a banana by a fan, and in June a banana was thrown onto the field in front of him.

After the latter incident, the Brazilian stormed off the field in anger and disgust.

Russian soccer authorities supposedly are trying to clamp down on such incidents, but they have met with limited success. Whether Eto'o, long an outspoken critic of racism in soccer, will be able to cope with similar fan behavior is uncertain.

In 2008, when fans in Spain were taunting him with monkey noises, Eto'o spoke out.

"It's a sad situation in football," he told CNN at the time. "In my opinion, the problem is getting bigger and the people that should come up with a solution are not doing it.

"The authorities are working to find solutions. But they must find them. We can't wait until some crazy fan jumps from his seat and kills a black player before measures are taken.

"The players are revolted by it and we try to help each other. But the authorities must find a way to set an example."

So we are left with the question about whether the money Eto'o will start collecting when he makes his debut Saturday is worth it all — the nondescript team in a mediocre league, the ugly minority of fans, the threats posed by crime and terrorism in a turbulent, insurgent-plagued region of Russia.

Significantly, he will not be taking his family with him on this new adventure.

But one can't help but reflect on the words of a former Inter Milan teammate, Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso.

"In Inter's history there have been lots of great champions who have moved on to other things," Cambiasso told the BBC, "and afterward Inter was still Inter."

That is true, but will Eto'o still be Eto'o, or have we sadly seen the last of Africa's most talented player?

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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