“Samuel, will the World Cup be an opportunity for Africa?” While Eto’o is running away from sport reporters and cameras, he suddenly stops. He turns his face with a clear and determined look as if he were about to score, and says: “Africa must seize the opportunity to demonstrate that we are able to organize such an important event as the World Cup. I think it will be the best World Cup ever played.”
“I was born in a lost corner of Africa, in the middle of nowhere in Cameroon, a place where only one boy out of ten achieves a good level of education,” says the INTER striker. “God wanted me to leave my country to become the person I am today. I’m a believer, and one day I said to myself ‘If God gave me all these possibilities, why shouldn’t I share what I have with others?’”
Eto’o is the hero of every African child waiting for the World Cup to take place from 11 June to 11 July in South Africa.
Nevertheless, back when he was a young boy growing up in the Cameroonian town of Nkongmondo, a suburb of Douala, he didn’t seem to be any more talented than the other teens challenging on the local hard court.
He seemed to be just like everyone else. And that is the way he introduced himself in Milan, on February 21, wearing a pair of jeans and a dark sweater, to receive the “Altropallone” award, a prize created as an alternative to the Golden Ball, because it is not awarded for football merits but for fair play and solidarity activities outside of the football pitch.
In 2010, in addition to the 13th edition of the prize, another campaign called “Altrimondiali” was launched. This is an awareness campaign by CoLomba, an association which gathers 100 Italian NGOs based in Milan and in the Italian region of Lombardy.
In Cameroon, Eto’o has created a non-profit foundation which aim is to educate children through football, organizing tournaments around the country. In the prison of Douala, the worst in the country for detainees’ living conditions, he has organised a centre for minors’ education.
“I’ve discovered that what really makes me happy in life is to share what I have with other people,” says the football player. “I feel like an older brother for children of my country, so my aim was to formalise this commitment and create a foundation to help more people find their way both through relations and sport.”
Eto’o is proud of the job he has done in the prison of Douala: “Here, while I’m receiving this prize, I am the face of the people who work with me and who, with me, have been able to help minors in prison.” “When I went to the prison of Douala, I found adults and 9 year-old children jailed together in difficult conditions”.
The website of his foundation tells of minors, jailed for stealing fruit at the market, who remain in prison for a long lengths of time because they are not able to pay the compulsory release fee, which amounts to 10 euros.
“We are fighting for this not to happen again,” says Eto’o, “but in the meantime we have created a school in the prison with professors, computers and all the necessary tools. My biggest satisfaction was when one of these children took the school-leaving certificate in jail. I don’t judge. Only God can judge the reason why a child is in prison. When they told me that I had won a prize, I thought about the children I’m helping, and I also thought about this guy who now studies at university. Today, my family has grown. It is no longer restricted to my personal unit”.
And what about Italy? When he talks about racism in Italian stadiums, Eto'o warms up: “The stadium is a reflex of society. People who come and shout ‘negro’ do that because of their ignorance. They probably have not had the chance to travel and witness other cultures, otherwise they would know that we may be white, black or red, but we are all human beings. My veins have the same blood than yours have, if I get hurt it will be red just like yours. These people need to be helped to understand, but this cannot be done by a single football player. It is up to politicians because it is a social and a politic problem.”
Eto’o says he has never had any problems of racism in Italy, although “Mario Balotelli – a player of INTER – has some problems, and I think it is no coincidence that he is Italian.” The most difficult moment for the Cameroonian player was in Saragoza, in Spain. “I was aped only in that city. And I’ve alway wondered why these people would buy a ticket to watch an ape play…”