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Eto'o out to prove class is permanent

NO sooner was one tournament over than Samuel Eto'o turned his mind to the next. While having enjoyed, along with countless other spectators, a European Championship both friendly and compelling to the eye and rejoiced in the victory of Spain, the country where he has spent the past 11 of his 27 years, Africa's leading footballer made no secret of his excitement about the World Cup scheduled to take place on his native continent two years hence.

"I have asked so much of God,'' said Eto'o, "and He has given me so much that I am hesitant to ask for any more. But I pray for one thing. I pray He will allow me to be fit and in the best condition to represent Cameroon in South Africa."

So much for God. Meanwhile Mammon's agents were pondering the attractions of a move to Chelsea.

Eto'o, thrice African Footballer of the Year and already a European champion, appears ready for a change of scene. Since Frank Rijkaard's beautiful team added the European title to their domestic successes, both Barcelona in general and Eto'o in particular have been troubled

A knee injury has dogged Eto'o (though last season he managed to notch 16 goals in a mere 18 league appearances). And Real Madrid, with all too little difficulty for Catalan comfort, are once again champions of Spain.

Eto'o, in whom Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham have also been credited with a serious interest, went on holiday insisting his future would not be decided until the Barcelona squad gathered to prepare for a new season under Pep Guardiola. But it seems Guardiola, erstwhile conductor of the Camp Nou midfield, will point his baton at the door through which Deco walked; while the goals and defence-stretching pace of Eto'o will be harder to replace than Ronaldinho's faded showmanship, the time has come for fresh faces.

All Eto'o would tell me was that he craved a proper pre-season in which full match-fitness could be regained: "That is the most important thing to me.'' So, if he is as good as his word and the sums add up, we should know within the next week whether Eto'o is to return as a friendly face to Stamford Bridge, where once he became involved in a post-match tunnel confrontation -- one of those scenes which tended to accompany Champions League meetings between Barcelona and the Chelsea of their former employee Jose Mourinho.

In the end Eto'o's relationship with Rijkaard became sour -- once he refused to take the field as a substitute -- but his peak years at Barcelona were something special.

As far back as 2003, he was being chased by Tottenham when on loan at Real Mallorca from Real Madrid, for whose youth team he played alongside Iker Casillas, Raul Bravo and Esteban Cambiasso; Barcelona's great rivals were to regret letting him go in order to demonstrate faith in Ronaldo, who was to lose fitness, and Raul, whose form was to deteriorate.

Eto'o left Cameroon for Madrid at 16. "It was like a child's dream,'' he said. "I was playing for the national team and someone just came up to me and asked if I wanted to play for Real Madrid.''

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The trip to Europe did not daunt Eto'o. He was accustomed to being a boy among men, having made his debut for Cameroon at 14.

"It was against the Ivory Coast in Abidjan. A tough match, especially for me. I was so small I had to roll up my shirt and wrap it around my waist so you could see my shorts! But I was used to dealing with intimidation.''

On this occasion the method involved scoring after 30 seconds, although the Ivorians recovered from his impertinence to win 4-2. In Spain, he had to endure examples of racism but flowered at Mallorca.

With Real Madrid's permission, he moved on to Barcelona, a fee of £18m changing hands.

In his first season there was a Liga title to celebrate, which Eto'o did by insulting Real Madrid in public, an impetuous decision which cost him a fine of £8,000 levied by the Spanish FA.

Then came the triumphant Champions League campaign. After a hat-trick in a rout of Panathinaikos during the group stage, Eto'o scored a late winner at Chelsea before Barcelona reached the final through another notable away victory, over Milan.

Early in the final against Arsenal, whom he had also admired in his youth Jens Lehmann brought Eto'o down and was sent off. Arsenal still led through Sol Campbell until the substitute Henrik Larsson prompted Eto'o's equaliser and Belletti finished the job.

"After that the injuries started to take their toll and now all I want to do is get back to where I was. Whether it will be in England remains to be seen, but I've always liked the idea of playing there.''

And, with all due respect to Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Juande Ramos and the power of prayer, Roman Abramovich's money may prove the most resonant voice in football as the Luiz Felipe Scolari era begins.(©Daily Telegraph, London)

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