In the neighbourhood of Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o

The Cameroon star’s roots are in the impoverished community of New Bell, where they remember a prodigious child playing.

Samuel Eto'o's neighbourhood pitch
Samuel Eto'o's New Bell neighbourhood pitch is a far cry from the international stadiums in which he went on to play [Paul Njie/Al Jazeera]

Douala, Cameroon – There is a small football field in the district of New Bell that, at first glance, is not much to look at. The approximately 100-metre-long (330 feet) pitch is rough, unkempt, replete with puddles and bookended by small wooden goalposts dressed in torn green nets.

The field is not only a symbol of the impoverished nature of New Bell, but it also reveals the community’s deep attachment to the beautiful game. After all, it is the place where football legend Samuel Eto’o first learned to play.

At a very young age, his family moved here from Cameroon’s political capital, Yaounde – where he was born. Friends and community members watched Eto’o grow from a boy who kicked a ball around in the streets to one of the world’s most lethal strikers.

Dominique Essindi, a childhood friend, also grew up here and lives just a stone’s throw from the pitch, a constant reminder of their childhood. At 48, he still clearly remembers the matches he played with his competitive friend Eto’o before they were teenagers.

“Samuel never liked defeat,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that back then, neighbourhoods played each other in what is locally called Interquarter Football.

“I remember we had a match at Ecole Publique de New Bell Bassa, and he came late when we were two goals down. He wanted to enter the pitch, but the coach kept him on the bench. Eto’o was furious. But when he entered, he played exceptionally well and even scored a goal. The match finally ended in a draw.”

Samuel Eto'o
Former Inter Milan and Barcelona player Samuel Eto’o speaks during The Best FIFA Football Awards 2017 [Eddie Keogh/Reuters]

Initially, Essindi revealed, the community thought at the time that Eto’o‘s friends were more likely to break through. Not many imagined he would become a global star.

“People thought his friends, Ghislain Chameni, Jean Ondoa and even his younger brother David Eto’o would grow up to be better players,” he said.

But through robust training, hard work and determination, Essindi admitted, Eto’o‘s success was assured. “He had a New Bell mindset – never give up, despite tough times,” Essindi added.

“Eto’o wasn’t afraid to suffer. That has been his driving force ’til today. He has the mindset of a winner who knows where he’s from.”

Essindi, who prides himself on being one of the best defenders in New Bell in his early days, is among those who did recognise Eto’o’s football potential. Eto’o‘s ability to control the ball, dribble and score breathtaking goals was apparent before he played later for FC Barcelona or Inter Milan. He displayed these skills first in his home country as a striker for teams including Union Camerounaise de Brasseries (UCB) in 1996.

“We believed Samuel Eto’o would become a big player in this country, when he played in the quarter-final against the great Tonnerre Kalara Club of Yaounde in the Cup of Cameroon,” Essindi recalled. “Eto’o, very young and slim at the time, singlehandedly helped UCB thrash Tonnerre in the two-legged encounter. That was when we knew that boy had great potential.”

Eto’o told CNN during an interview in 2020 that he grew up at the hands of the people in this neighbourhood and that elders took care of him and advised him because they felt he had something and could end up successful.

New Bell is a place reputed for delinquency. Its enduring legacy, the Douala New Bell Prison, is a facility built in 1902 for a capacity of 800 inmates, but now holds more than that.

“If we go a little further, we will see that the Central Prison is nearby. It seemed more likely that I would end up in that prison,” Eto’o told CNN in 2020.

But the player did not end up there. Instead, he left Cameroon at 16, bound for Europe, where his illustrious career took off.

Samuel Eto'o's childhood family home
Samuel Eto’o‘s childhood family home in New Bell [Paul Njie/Al Jazeera]

Eto’o‘s family lived in a modest house. The building, secured by a grey gate, has a fence that’s tiled mid-way. It is perched between a church and other small houses. Since Eto’o and his family left the neighbourhood, the apartment has been rented out.

In this neighbourhood in New Bell, it is no surprise to see laundry ropes tied against pillars, with clothes spread out in front of people’s homes. Some who live in buildings spread their washed clothes on guardrails. A few metres away from the former Eto’o family home is the residence of the leader of New Bell Block 10, Chief Emmanuel Tonye, who watched Eto’o play football as a young boy.

Sitting outside a local bar just beside his residence, the ruler reminisced about Eto’o‘s passion for the game.

Eto’o … is a footballer created by God. He’s a born footballer. That’s because even though his mother was just a trader, he still dreamed of becoming a football player,” Tonye told Al Jazeera. “Just like other mothers [in New Bell], Eto’o‘s mother would beat him up and send him back home when she saw him playing football.”

At the time, he said, most parents in New Bell considered the sport a waste of time.

But now, things have changed.

“Thanks to Samuel Eto’o‘s image, some parents are now motivating their children to play football,” Raymond Mbeleck, who resides in New Bell, told Al Jazeera. “Today, everybody wants to be a footballer because they all dream of becoming an Eto’o someday. There are so many talented kids here who play the game.

Chief Emmanuel Tonye, the traditional ruler of New Bell Block 10
Chief Emmanuel Tonye, the traditional leader of New Bell Block 10, watched Samuel Eto’o playing football here as a child [Paul Njie/Al Jazeera]

Their icon, Eto’o, who retired from the game in 2019, has also accomplished another milestone in football management – becoming the president of the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot). His December 2021 victory signalled a new dawn for the sport in Cameroon, according to many New Bell residents.

“When the Fecafoot election results were released, the entire New Bell community was in a festive mood. There was joy everywhere; it was enormous and fantastic … People here in New Bell shouted from all corners of their homes,” Essindi said.

“We have always wanted Eto’o at the helm of Fecafoot,” Mbeleck added. “That’s because we knew he would change many things. I recently learned that some of our compatriots who played football abroad have returned to the country to play in the Cameroonian championship. This shows that Samuel Eto’o‘s presence in Fecafoot played a big role.”

At one point, Mbeleck added, Cameroonian football was going down the drain: “But in Eto’o‘s close-to-one-year stay at Fecafoot, we now see a bright future for football in this country.”

This is just one of the reasons the people of New Bell hold the football legend in such high esteem.

“He is a giver. He helps people in need and solves people’s problems here. We have many rich people in New Bell, but Eto’o is the only rich one who gives. He helps everyone without discrimination, we are always proud of Eto’o,” Tonye said.

As he speaks these words, people seated around him nod in agreement. It speaks volumes of how much the community values the man they call “The New Bell Kid”.

Source: Al Jazeera