It has, in his own words, been a "spectacular" year for Samuel Eto'o. With a combination of lightning pace, predatory goalscoring instincts and a driven personality, the once precocious striker has truly come of age, shaking off a 24 million euros transfer tag and bagging the goals to propel new-club Barcelona to the Spanish championship.
At the end of 2005, the 24-year-old was voted third in the FIFA World Player awards and is now right in line to claim a hat-trick of African best footballer prizes. But in a sea of sweet success appears the Cameroonian's worst nightmare - failure to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Back among his countrymen and determined to restore pride among the Indomitable Lions, the 24-year-old spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his famous year, his desire to play in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and who will take the penalties in Egypt…
"No, it was not a difficult decision to leave Barca," begins Eto'o , rubbishing somewhat the 'will he or won't he go' headlines that have dominated the Catalan press over December and January. "Playing for my country is a great honour and when given the chance I'll gladly perform for the people of Africa."
Cameroon have been licking their wounds for a good few months now. A 1-1 draw on 8 October against Egypt in Yaounde meant the nation that had achieved Africa's greatest result at a FIFA World Cup finals (quarter-finals, 1990) would not be joining the party in Germany. But beyond the hounded looks on the faces of their players that night, the bitter aftertaste of that failure would linger on. In a dramatic ending to the crucial qualifier, Internazionale defender Pierre Wome had fired a last-gasp penalty against the upright. And in the following weeks Wome and Eto'o, who many felt the most qualified to take responsibility for the spotkick, exchanged words through the media about the incident.
While many have pondered whether Eto'o would have played in the Cup of Nations had Wome scored and Cameroon qualified for Germany, Portuguese coach Artur Jorge's 23-man squad for the tournament features Eto'o but not, significantly, Wome.
"I was shocked that Wome was left out," admits Eto'o, "because, and there's no doubt about this, if it were down to ability, he should definitely be in the side."
Plundering goals left, right and centre for his club in the new season and revelling in the limelight, the Barcelona forward is able to dismiss that tragic day in October as a "slip-up". Since then Cameroon have had a get-together near Paris and played a Basque country XI to recover from the psychological damage.
"Football is not a science and accidents can happen along the way," states Eto'o. "The atmosphere in the camp is good now. We have some old hands and young players coming through. After our slip up in the final qualifying match we're intent on doing well in Egypt, not only for the people but for ourselves. We want to conquer Africa."
And who will take the penalties?
"There's no firm decision," he explains. "Many things can happen during the course of a game so it just depends on who feels right at the moment and on the day."
Having won the first of his 67 caps as a 15-year-old, Egypt 2006 will be Eto'o's fourth African Cup of Nations. Memories are predominantly good with triumphs in Nigeria and Mali followed most recently by a quarter-final defeat to Nigeria in Tunisia two years ago. A return to Africa's Arabic north, he believes, is no barrier to more joy.
"Well we've won two out of the three competitions I've been in so I think we stand a pretty good chance," he says confidently. "It doesn't matter where you play as long as the pitches are good. If the ground is similar to what our players are used to in Europe then we'll play better. It could actually work for us."
Group B includes two World Cup qualifiers Angola and Togo as well as Democratic Republic of Congo, but although Eto'o believes it is a "tough one", he refuses to consider Cameroon anything other than favourites.
"Just because you're going to the World Cup doesn't mean you're a better team," he responds defensively. "We beat Cote d'Ivoire 3-2 but they still qualified."
For that away match, which came a month before the home draw against already eliminated Egypt, Eto'o had reportedly offered to pay from his own pocket win bonuses for his team-mates.
It was not an isolated spot of generosity. A few seasons ago after being sent off early in a match for Real Mallorca against Barcelona and subsequently suspended for four matches, Eto'o gestured paying the admission fee for fans (up to 30,000) at the following home match. And the African striker has frequently let it be known that he would like to find (and reward) the man who first helped him on European territory. Landing in Spain disoriented and without a penny, 16-year-old Samuel, who had been signed by Real Madrid after impressing at the Kadji academy in Cameroon, made a beeline for the first African person he could find to ask for directions to the Santiago Bernabeu.
In the near decade since, Eto'o has become Africa's greatest performer. First, flirting with Real Madrid's first team, then honing his talent at Mallorca and now reaping rich rewards at Barcelona. An unshakeable will, intoxicating enthusiasm and drive for success have seen him become one of the leaders of the Blaugrana. His off-the-field behaviour has been loudly applauded as a shining example by coach Frank Rijkaard while, on the pitch, he has forged an instinctive partnership with FIFA World Player Ronaldinho. Replacing the inconsistent Patrick Kluivert, Eto'o struck 24 goals last season in the league and with 18 more this term, even with the Cup of Nations' break, he is well on course to surpassing that total and becoming Pichichi (league top scorer).
"It's been a spectacular year for both the club and for me," he smiles. "I'd say the sweetest moment was winning the league. I'd love to have been Pichichi and I think I should have been credited with 25 goals but it wasn't to be. I tried to score in that final game but the most important thing was always winning the league."
As well as prodigious talent and a strong sense of the family, his secret to success is hard work and luck. Doubly so, he says, if you are African.
"When you have begun playing barefoot, you never fall into the trap of thinking you're better than others," he says. "It is more difficult for Africans to succeed. You need a lot of luck and help on the way. In Africa there's hunger, the money that moves there means you get fewer opportunities. Footballers may have the qualities and passion but there are so many other things standing in your way."
Cameroon will not become the first African country to win the win World Cup in Germany, but Eto'o is planning for the future. He has helped finance a footballing academy that aims to give talented children from Douala a fighting chance to fulfil their dreams and, just like him, become great footballers. Expert training is given three times a week, but the kids must also go to school as part of the programme. Last month, Eto'o watched on as the 12 12-year-olds impressed in an international 7-a-side tournament, finishing second to Espanyol.
"I don't know if I'm the right person to give them advice," says Eto'o rather modestly. "But I wanted to help my country in some way I know how. There are a lot of pitfalls on the way to making it in the game and we'll be helping these boys as much as we can."
It is hard to believe 2006 can get much better, but Eto'o remains ambitious.
"I'd have FIFA improve more pitches in Africa, I want more cups and medals and," he adds laughing, "I'd like to be named FIFA World Player."