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TO BEHOLD SAMUEL ETO'O ON THE ATTACK—TO WATCH THE WIRY STRIKER SLALOM THROUGH DEFENDERS AND POUND THE BALL PAST THE KEEPER WITH EITHER FOOT—IS TO SEE A GAME TURN ON A MOMENT'S BRILLIANCE. Since leading Cameroon to a surprise gold medal at the 2000 Olympics, Eto'o has helped the Indomitable Lions qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations five times and win it twice. Playing in Spain from 1997 through '09, he helped Barcelona win three La Liga crowns and two Champions League titles. Throw in other accolades too numerous to mention, and the 29-year-old forward is the most decorated African footballer in history.
The pinnacle of his gilded club career came last year, when Eto'o starred up top for a team that many have called Barcelona's greatest of all time. He pumped in a career-high 36 goals in all competitions as Barça became the first side to win the Spanish league, the King's Cup and the Champions League in a single season. Counting the lesser Spanish and European Super Cups, Barça became the first club in history to collect six trophies in a single season when it won the FIFA Club World Cup final in December. It was a mind-boggling run, and Eto'o was the offensive focal point for most of it.
He departed for Inter Milan last summer at a time when Cameroon's World Cup qualifying hopes were in serious jeopardy. New manager Paul Le Guen stripped elder statesman Rigobert Song of the captain's armband and gave it to Eto'o. Le Guen risked losing the locker room with the gamble, but the Lions' alltime leading scorer punched in three goals as Cameroon rattled off four straight victories to secure a place in South Africa. (In gratitude Eto'o bought each member of the squad a $44,000 watch.)
Eto'o isn't the first African footballer to be elevated to godlike status. Roger Milla, who captained the Indomitable Lions to their first World Cup appearance in 1982 and was coaxed out of retirement to play in the 1990 Cup at age 38, became an African folk hero by scoring four goals to spirit the Lions to the Cup quarterfinals, where they led England before losing in extra time.
Fittingly, it was Milla who piqued a young Eto'o's interest in soccer. After a match in the late '80s Milla tossed his shirt to the fans, and it landed in the arms of the six-year-old Eto'o. Nine years later he made his first appearance with the national team and was spotted by former Real Madrid star Pirri. Before long the boy was playing for Madrid's reserves. Unable to speak a word of Spanish at first, he didn't establish himself with Los Blancos, who sent him bouncing from club to club on loan. Eventually he left for a five-year spell at Mallorca before joining Barcelona in 2004.
At Camp Nou he blossomed from precocious talent to global superstar, dazzling fans with his electric pace, twisty runs and poacher's instincts. He scored 121 goals in five seasons; only two players in the club's 111-year history have scored more. The contradictions within Eto'o, from playing style (artistic but economical) to personality (combative but engaging), only added to his mystique.
Perhaps his biggest accomplishment, though, is that Cameroon now expects success on the international stage. Eto'o faces intense pressure in South Africa: He was all but fitted for the Golden Boot by African fans the day South Africa was awarded the finals. But after 13 years in the pressure cooker of La Liga, he should be up to the task. With Eto'o in peak form and the World Cup in Africa for the first time, a Cameroonian could lift African soccer to unprecedented heights.