Samuel Eto’o left for Europe to become one of the greatest African footballers of all time but it was in the city of Douala that he first made his name and where residents continue to idolise the former Barcelona superstar.
Cameroon’s economic capital is a loud and chaotic port city, hot and humid.
It is here that the country’s Indomitable Lions will face Gambia in the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals on Saturday as Cameroon come to Douala for the first time in the tournament having played their previous matches in Yaounde.
Eto’o, who also starred for Inter Milan and wore the number nine for his country, moved to Douala with his family from the capital as a young boy.
He was raised in an unremarkable house on a dusty street in New Bell, an impoverished district where the locals are only too happy to talk about the man who put their neighbourhood on the map.
“He grew up here but he was blessed by God,” says Valentine, a 49-year-old caterer sheltering from the scorching mid-afternoon sun just across the street from the Eto’o family house.
“Eto’o has helped a lot of people in this neighbourhood. Recently he came back here and laid on food for everyone in New Bell.”
– Immortalised –
Just along the street is a bar where the exterior walls are decorated with pictures of the four-time African Footballer of the Year.
Nearby the moto-taxis that can make navigating the streets a hazardous task pass in front of a statue of Eto’o in the green, yellow and red of Cameroon, with whom he won the AFCON in 2000 and 2002.
Eto’o was just 20 when he led the Indomitable Lions to that second continental title and it would be another two years before he signed for Barcelona and teamed up with players including Ronaldinho and a very young Lionel Messi.
In Douala it was clear Eto’o was a special talent from a very young age.
“He was little, lively and loved football,” recalls Jean Rene Noubissi, who took Eto’o under his wing as he was starting out at local side UCB.
“He calls me his first president. I helped oversee his development.
“When he played for UCB he scored goals in every game and I would give him a little bonus as a reward.
“Even then you could see the discipline he had. He believed in his potential and knew where he wanted to go.”
The walls of Noubissi’s cramped office in the Akwa business district are covered in pictures of him with Eto’o, including one with Barcelona president Joan Laporta.
– ‘Role model’ –
Eto’o was on the books at Real Madrid and starred for Mallorca before joining Barcelona, but before all of that he went to France to try his luck only to return home with his tail between his legs.
“When he came back he had no club but he was still very famous, everybody knew about him in Douala. When he was just 14 he was the one feeding the whole family,” says Hiondi Nkam, author of a new book about Eto’o called “Les Anges et Les Demons” (Angels and Demons).
He was not yet 16 when he made his international debut and barely 17 when he went to the 1998 World Cup after newly-appointed coach Claude Le Roy decided he could not ignore such a precocious talent.
“I wanted to give a chance to all the locally-based players to see if there were any gems among them, and I saw this young player who seemed so comfortable tactically and so intelligent,” Le Roy told AFP.
“He was just a kid but he wasn’t afraid of all the big names in the team.”
Having retired from playing in 2019 aged 38, Eto’o has quickly transitioned into a leadership role off the field and in December, he was elected president of Cameroon’s Football Federation.
“People believe that he is not there for money or fame, but he is there to help,” says Nkam, who sums up what Eto’o means to New Bell.
“He is a role model. He was selfish on the field of play but very, very human off it. Some people would say that after God comes Samuel Eto’o.”