On October 20, 2010, Gareth Bale scored a hat-trick against Inter Milan which helped propel him to superstardom – and ultimately to Real Madrid. But the real star of the show that evening was a man who deserves more credit: Samuel Eto’o.
The 2010-11 season was Tottenham’s first in the Champions League, and after beating Twente in their first home game, Harry Redknapp’s side travelled to Milan for the first of their two matches against the holders.
What followed, as many people will tell you, is that Bale terrorised Maicon, ending the Brazilian’s career and helping Spurs sail to first place in the group. But that’s not quite accurate.
Yes, Bale scored a hat-trick at the San Siro and helped Spurs to a 3-1 win in the reverse fixture, but the treble in Italy came when Spurs were already 4-0 behind to a team led expertly by a certain Samuel Eto’o.
If you hadn’t seen the game, you could be forgiven for not realising Eto’o even played, let alone made a crucial attacking contribution – and that lack of recognition followed him around throughout a career in which he achieved a great deal more than many of his peers.
Going into the game against Spurs, Inter were ahead of their opponents at the top of the group on goal difference – thanks in no small part to Eto’o’s hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Werder Bremen.
And sure enough, the Cameroonian played his part once more against Spurs.
It was he who played in Javier Zanetti for the second-minute opener, settling any nerves in the perfect manner.
It was he who converted from the penalty spot after Heurelho Gomes brought down Jonathan Biabiany.
It was he who provided the deft flick to set up Dejan Stanković, handing Inter a 3-0 lead within 15 minutes.
And it was he who put them four to the good before half-time, nudging a Philippe Coutinho pass beyond substitute goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.
Throughout his career, Eto’o did everything that was asked of him and more, yet in many circles he is rated just below the greats of the game.
Whether that’s down to his nationality, his (unfair) characterisation as ‘not a complete striker’ or the fact that he spent a fair chunk of his career at unfashionable clubs and/or with more marketable team-mates is tough to say.
Eto’o had to do things the hard way after being allowed to leave Real Madrid as a teenager and build his reputation elsewhere.
But rebuild it he did, helping Mallorca – Mallorca! – qualify for the Champions League in 2001 and scoring the only goal in a group stage victory away at Schalke.
Still, while that was impressive, he hadn’t done it at a big club.
Not to worry; after 70 goals for Mallorca he moved to Barça, where his final tally of 130 goals in 199 games is higher than Neymar (105 in 186), Patrick Kluivert (122 in 257) and even Luis Suárez, though the Uruguayan’s current tally of 124 has come in about 40 fewer games.
He was the player Barcelona thought they were getting when Thierry Henry joined from Arsenal, ending his spell in Catalunya with a goal in a Champions League final which he started alongside the Frenchman.
He even scored a trademark Henry goal against Panathinaikos, as if to prove that exact point.
But hey, anyone can win the Champions League with Barcelona, he’d only be a great if he did it with a smaller club.
“Ugh, fine,” Eto’o says, getting noticeably antsy at your display of impatience. “But let me do it early so you don’t keep nagging me.”
You could see from his first goal for Inter – a lethal volley in the Supercoppa final against Lazio – that he had no plans to fuck around that season, and he ended it with a second Champions League trophy in as many years.
Edging past Barcelona on the way, of course, but not scoring in the semi-final because he isn’t one to rub it in.
For most players that would have been enough, but Eto’o went on to hit double-figures for goals in each of the next four seasons, for three different clubs in as many countries.
Sure, two back-to-back Champions League winners’ medals is okay, but is he really good until he’s scored in the Premier League?
No, Cardiff doesn’t count, I meant against a big team?
No, one goal against Liverpool isn’t enough, he needs more than one.
Yeah, like a hat-trick against Man Un…oh, okay, yeah that’ll do.
By Tom Victor