Q & A
Football's biggest stars in the hot seat
You say you have an instinct for scoring. Is that innate?
I’ve always scored goals, but I’ve worked on timing. Work, work, work. You get results if you work. In training I demand to be put in difficult situations, to receive difficult balls. Scoring is only easy when the ball is in the net. I shoot a lot in training. Out of every 100 stones that you throw you never know which one will kill the bird.
My job is to score goals. Every time I feel I have a chance, I try it. If not, I pass. But the priority is to score. When I attack, I only have goal in my head. My universe is the goal with a goalkeeper in it. That and the box.
You’re at home in the box?
Yes. I know that place. I don’t panic there. I’m cold blooded. It is fundamental to be able to shove out of your mind the thousands of things that can pollute your spirit in that moment.
Do you have a technique?
I look at the goalkeeper. He might make a small mistake. When I get the ball I think ‘goal’. I already know that I am going to control it. Everything is about the goal. I position myself so that I score. And when I don’t have the ball I run after it.
Not many people know that when you were younger, you played as a midfielder or as number ‘10’, but not as a ‘9’.
The great forwards have never had my education. I know what it is to defend because I played several positions which demanded sacrifice for the team. I try never just to be the guy who scores goals. I want to fight up front, in the middle or at the back. He who fights for every ball is he who doesn’t have a number on his back.
I was frail when I was younger – that taught me to dodge people. Above all I discovered that speed is essential in football, and it wasn’t only to escape the big guys who were running after me! Everyone in the family is like me – thin and straight-backed. It is only my mother who is an African mother: imposing, striking, beautiful. And she has had six children. When she is there you know she is there.
How important is it for you to have your family and your extended family in Barcelona?
It is not as important for them to be in Barcelona as it is to feel the support from the family, no matter where they are. The continent is a mental state. I live in Europe, but I sleep in Africa. Every goal of mine is a celebration of there. Hopefully I’ll have time to do more things for the people in Africa when I’ve stopped playing.
What do you get from your family?
Love and mental strength.
What are your most African traits?
My happiness. My desire to play football. My enthusiasm to play football, but I’ve changed. In Africa I played for pleasure. In Europe I play to win.
What was your biggest fault as a kid?
My heading was weak so my coach painted white circles onto a grey wall. I had to touch them with my head. I didn’t realise why I was missing headers, but then I understood. I became more precise because I could evaluate the distance between me and the goal. I often remember this grey wall which has allowed me score so many important goals. There are a lot of good headers of the ball, but they are not as precise.
What type of player were you as a kid?
A gifted player technically who was not afraid of anything. I always tried the impossible with the ball.
Is that no longer the case?
I only dribble when it’s necessary now. I’ve managed to get rid of the extra stuff, which is not easy for an African who adores everything that is beautiful about the game. On the other hand, when I play for the national team, I have a tendency to go back to my roots. The national team manager uses me in a different way to Barça, where I am at the point of the team. At Cameroon I play behind the main striker or beside him and I become Cameroonian again. Dribbling, trying a nutmeg and making passes.
Are you ever tempted to play that way in Barcelona?
No. It’s very simple at Barcelona. I don’t have a desire to organise a game like Xavi or Deco, or to dribble like Ronaldinho, who is a genius. My strength is to keep my position. I always try to play for the team, whichever team it is. I am disciplined and I get upset when the others aren’t.
You must have been even more upset when you were out injured this season. How tough was that?
It was very difficult. I don’t think anybody chooses when they get injured. I was playing well and Barça were doing well. Life was like a dream and then I was injured.
Why did you still go to most Barça games when you were injured?
Because I liked to be close to my colleagues and the closest I could get was in the stands. It was difficult, because there are a lot of nerves inside a stadium and I wanted to be on the pitch helping my colleagues. But it’s even worse on television, so that’s why I went.
Were some games more difficult to watch than others?
The big games and the ones in which Barça were not winning. Against Chelsea in the Nou Camp, for example. I was desperate to be on the pitch to make sure that Barça won. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t…
Was that because it was Chelsea - a team you’ve said you dislike?
I’ve never said that about Chelsea. The papers that printed that were telling lies. They were trying to create a controversy which didn’t exist. Chelsea is a big club with a great team. I respect Chelsea.
Would you like to play for them?
I’m happy here in Barcelona.
Do you think that your absence from Barcelona proved how important you are to them?
I don’t think my absence demonstrated anything. We all need each other and we all play for each other. That’s our mentality. We’re out of the Europe but we’re still leading the Spanish league so we must be doing something right.
But Barça were not the same without you…
That’s your opinion.
Barça won far fewer games without you. Speak to the 80,000 people who watch the team play, who pay your wages. All of them will tell you that Barça is not the same without you…
[Shrugs] Their opinion.
Is there a small part of you that’s satisfied at that? Do you feel you were taken for granted before?
Who didn’t value me? Who said that? Everyone is free to think what they want but I’ve never not felt that I’m taken for granted, not by my team mates and the coach. Not by the people in the street. Not by the people in Cameroon.
Nevertheless do you think that if you weren’t African, people in Spain would give you more respect?
No, I don’t think about that.
How did you feel in Zaragoza last season when you suffered so much racism from the crowd that you started to leave the pitch?
That showed how I felt. I did not ignore it. Some players do. I was angry then, but that is in the past. I prefer that people know me for my actions on the pitch. Politicians should speak about racism, not sports people. Sometimes I’m guilty of being too sincere, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I swallow and get on with it.
But you’ve suffered racism in other areas of your life. For example, when you tried to buy something in a luxury shop in Paris last year…
The woman [sales assistant] refused to accept my credit card because she thought it was stolen. When the manager came, he recognised me. When they see that you’re a football player, they don’t see the black man, but the money.
Did he recognise you because you’re the best player in the world?
Me?! Thanks a lot, but the best player in the world just now is Cannavaro.
Because they gave him the prize of being the best footballer in the world.
But you’ve not always shown faith in that award. You once said that if your name was Eto’odinho, you’d have won it by now…
That was a long time ago when I said that. I’ve got no problem with Ronaldinho. He’s a great player and person.
There appeared to be a problem a couple of months ago [Eto’o rounded on Ronaldinho who, after Eto’o refused to come on as a sub against Racing Santander, offered a tame comment that the team should always come first]…
There was certainly a lot of controversy around the game against Racing. Why didn’t you play that night?
When you’ve just come back from injury, you should warm-up for longer. I hadn’t warmed up long enough and I wasn’t prepared to risk my knee because I could have come out of the situation badly. Then afterwards came something between me and the mister (Rijkaard), but there was not any problem. I gave my opinion and not everyone liked it, but it’s in the past.
But for two days there was a big controversy. You were seen as being critical of Ronaldinho…
There wasn’t a controversy between us. There were some misunderstandings, but as soon as we spoke these were cleared.
Would you say you’re an instinctive person?
Off the pitch, I am an instinctive person, someone who speaks and expresses himself even though that may not always be desirable. On the pitch, my instinct helps me to score goals, to anticipate things and this is desirable.
Did you try to come back from injury too soon?
No, and the club didn’t put any pressure on me. I am not 100 percent, but when you have been absent for five months, you’re not exactly the same when you return. I cannot say when I will be 100 percent because that depends on my knee and my knee doesn’t speak. My game will improve. Slowly I will get there.
What’s gone wrong at Barcelona? Is the club really divided into two camps as you suggested?
You’ll have to ask the people within the club. There is always politics off the field, but I just play and do my best.
Do you have the same level of hunger to succeed?
Can Barça still win the league this season, or are the divisions too wide to stop Seville?
Everything is possible. That’s the great thing about football, that anybody can win. Divisions? The team is not divided. There have been injuries but we’re a good group. People try to read into it problems that do not exist.
How do you feel when you see rumours in the press that Barça are trying to get rid of you?
The press is never right.
But has the time now come to find a new challenge?
Yes, and the new challenge is here in Barcelona. To win the league and the cup. We’ve won the league in the last two years beating some very strong teams and we’re top of that league now against some strong teams.
But it’s not vintage Barça is it? Not like a year ago…
Our rivals have got stronger. Look at Seville, Valencia. Or Real Madrid who played well against us.
OK, so you’re happy at Barça for now. But what about in the future?
I don’t think about it.
Everyone thinks about the future…
I have a contract here until 2010 and I’m happy with that. I can’t imagine myself leaving…
The weather, the people. The people treat me very well. It’s not in my thoughts at the moment to leave. The players are grown up and experienced. There are times when we don’t always agree, but the spirit is good. I have only ever played competitively in Spain and I like it here, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. When you are a player who makes headlines, or if you score a lot of goals there is always speculation. But it’s just that, speculation.
You were linked to Liverpool recently.
The English newspapers.
And what was their source?
A radio interview given by a Spanish agent…
But not my agent, not me. It’s not true. The newspapers are full of lies. No matter how many times I repeat that I am happy in Barcelona, some people don’t believe me.
What do you think of Liverpool?
I like the courage they’ve got. They have a big red heart. They showed that against us.
Were you surprised to lose to them in the Champions League? Did Frank Rijkaard underestimate them?
No. You have to recognise that in the two games, Liverpool played extremely well. They defend well, they are organised.
Which Liverpool players do you like?
Gerrard. He runs a lot. He does everything well. Gerrard is the best English player. No, change that. At the moment he’s the best player in England.
You’ve talked before about English football. Does playing in the Premiership appeal to you? You’d certainly be popular in England…
I watch English football. I like the crowd because it’s close to the pitch and the stadiums are always full. It’s not always like that in Spain. We played at Anfield and the noise was very loud, with lots of different songs. I like that. Football is different in England. It has a place in English hearts. But as for moving, look at who I play for, look at where I live and my lifestyle, look at what I’ve won. Would you move? I’m happy here, very happy.
Does this season’s Champions League prove that English football is now better than Spanish?
If you’re talking about the teams playing in the quarter-final, I’d have to say yes, but that changes every year. Spanish teams have done better than English teams in recent years, haven’t they? It’s hard for me to compare the Spanish and English league because I’ve never played in England.
You recently said that you don’t envy the lifestyle of another Englishman, David Beckham…
I don’t and I’ll say it again. I’m very happy with who I am. He is more handsome, but I am the better player.
Your very good friend Albert Luque has struggled at Newcastle. Why do you think that is? Have you discussed English football with him?
He’s my best friend, but we don’t speak about football. He’s a great player and a good person, but he has suffered in England. Managers are managers; they make decisions which they think are right…
Describe your ideal strike partner?
I don’t have one. At Barça, I like them all. To choose one or even two is difficult.
Which three forwards do you like in world football?
Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry and Thierry Henry. He’s a great player. He’s number one of the great players. Great players score goals, they make a difference. For me he is above everybody.
You’re 26 now. Will you keep playing as long as possible like Romario, or quit at the top?
I don’t know, I have no plans.
What about Henrik Larsson, who’s still playing at 35?
The chats that I had with Henrik at Barça were very precious. It was him who gave the team the possibility to play, with his movement, the way he opened up spaces. Him coming on in the Champions League Final was decisive, he allowed me to excel.
Cameroonian music. Rumba music,
Tom Cruise/ Penelope Cruz.
I’m not going to advertise, but I like cars and have more than one.
I don’t have one.
All the time? No! I like to sleep, but I spend time with my family because there are many things to do. I’ve got three kids at eight, four and five months who need lots of attention.
Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with? My wife.
Most treasured possession I love books. There are some very good Cameroonian writers on politics. I like to read them.
Douala, Cameroon. It’s a wonderful city. Please come. The people are good and friendly. The night life is there until the sun comes up. There are dangerous places, but it’s like that everywhere else in the world. The girls are great – very natural.
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