A couple of years ago Wesley Sneijder told a story about his time at Inter. “Samuel Eto’o played left winger [in 2009, the season Inter won the treble]. When the next manager came along and asked Eto’o to play left winger, he replied: ‘No, I only do that for Mourinho’.”
That the ‘next manager’ was Rafa Benitez presumably makes Mourinho’s heart swell with pride just a little bit more, but it should also be an indicator of just how powerful and charismatic a figure Mourinho was in the first decade of his managerial career. A light went out at some stage during his three years at Real Madrid, and he now looks like a man grasping to rediscover the secrets of the glory days, but before that, there was a sense that he could make anyone do anything.
“With Mourinho, he has the capacity to influence players in order for them to give everything they have to give,” Jose Morais, who was on Inter’s coaching staff that year, tells the Totally Football Show. “This is a quality that Mourinho has that probably is not is not a quality for every manager.”
Eto’o arrived at Inter in the summer of 2009, with a treble to his name from Barcelona but as probably the most significant makeweight in the history of football transfers. Pep Guardiola had decided Eto’o was no longer useful for him – “It is a question of feeling,” said Guardiola, by way of explanation – and wanted Zlatan Ibrahimovic instead. In came Ibra, the Ferrari being driven like a Fiat, for around €46million plus Eto’o. “[Guardiola] allowed Inter to strike the best deal in football history,” said Eto’o a few years ago.
Initially, it seemed relatively clear where Eto’o would play. Diego Milito had arrived that summer from Genoa, so a two-man forward line seemed the most obvious solution. And that’s how the season started, those two in front of a very narrow-looking midfield of Thiago Motta, Sulley Muntari, Dejan Stankovic and Patrick Vieira.
But there was a problem. “It was bad enough last year when the only people who could actually play were Zlatan and Maicon,” said Gab Marcotti on the episode of Golazzo dedicated to the treble. “But now Zlatan’s gone, there’s nobody who can create. Zero.”
So Inter took advantage of the tornado of money being spent in Madrid: this was the summer that Real bought Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Kaka and Xabi Alonso. They needed to shift some of their more peripheral players, to raise money but also presumably just to make room. The €15million Inter paid for Sneijder would turn out to be one of the great bargains of the last few decades, but the Dutchman wasn’t really one for the hard graft, and was best utilised as ten with players either side to do his running.
Which left space for just the one striker. Milito or Eto’o would have to be pushed to the wing.
“It was easy because Samuel Eto’o is a very special player and he’s a very intelligent player,” says Morais. “He understands that when the team need him to defend, he can defend when and when the team need him to score goals he can score goals.
“He’s a natural winner wherever he is. He likes to influence the others, he has a positive attitude. He can use his qualities in order to make the team win for himself to succeed. And it wasn’t really a strange role for him because he played as a nine, he played as a winger [at Barcelona].”
Playing on the flank of a three-man attack at Barcelona is a different thing to being a wide man in a Mourinho team, though. For a start, there’s the running, that you will often have to almost play as an auxiliary full-back, or tuck into midfield and help squeeze space. But there’s also the notion of who Eto’o would be supplicating himself for.
On the occasions when Eto’o would have to shift to the side for Barca, particularly under Guardiola, it would have been to accommodate Leo Messi, even at that stage a generational genius. Even a player of significant ego – and Eto’o certainly had an ego – could live with that. But at Inter he was ceding the No.9 spot to Milito, a brilliant player who would score 25 goals that season, but one of more modest reputation. He came from Genoa and had only one medal, a 2001 Argentinean Apertura with Racing, to his name.
But Eto’o did it. Happily, in fact. Which seems remarkable, but therein lay the power of Mourinho’s persuasion back then, that he could convince a man who had just scored 36 goals in a treble-winning season for Barcelona to essentially be a rich man’s Dirk Kuyt. “He wasn’t easy to motivate,” said Marco Materazzi about Eto’o recently.
“Thank God jealousy is not a feeling that belongs to me,” Eto’o told Gazzetta dello Sport this week. “Diego was in a great moment, near the goal he was never wrong, but basically he did what I did: I played for the team, he scored for the team. As for tactics, I only did what I had to do, what a group like this deserved.”
It’s interesting watching Mourinho explain his tactics in the first leg, as he did in a video for the Coaches’ Voice in 2019. He explains Eto’o’s role as if he’s talking about a full-back, stressing the need for him to get forward and support the attack, but emphasising that his priority is elsewhere. The ‘getting forward to aid Milito’ bit feels like it’s a bonus, the sort of thing that’s nice for him to do, but perhaps not essential.
Of course the defining game of that season for Inter as a whole, but also the one that summed up Eto’o’s transformation from goalscorer to self-sacrificing team man, was the away leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. Inter were 3-1 up from the first game, and Mourinho had already signalled his intentions by replacing Goran Pandev with Christian Chivu not long before kick-off, but the defensive approach went to a whole new level when Thiago Motta was sent off in the 28th minute.
“This match was difficult with 11 players. With 10 versus 11 it was historic,” said Mourinho afterwards. From that moment it was a masterclass in defensive football, Inter spending most of the game actively ceding possession and sitting so deep they were almost in the second tier of the Nou Camp. Eto’o, who ostensibly started on the right flank, spent the remainder of the game as an auxiliary right-back, as Maicon tucked inside.
All attacking instincts were stymied, all concentration was on not conceding a goal. Eto’o had to spend the biggest game of the season and potentially the most intensely pressured of his career, playing football against his natural inclinations.
“That was an emergency,” Eto’o told Gazzetta. “And anyway what I thought that night was actually my year-round mindset. When Thiago Motta was sent off, Mourinho called me and Zanetti, he explained how to position ourselves. I didn’t even have time to think, I said to myself ‘Give it all and we’ll see at the end.’ And in the end we were in the final.”
The treble was completed in what was ultimately a fairly routine 2-0 victory over Bayern: routine in that Inter won without too many alarms, but also routine in that Milito scored the goals while Eto’o spent the game diligently tracking up and down the flanks. Although arguably Eto’o’s most important role had already been completed before they even took to the pitch: Mourinho asked him to give the pre-match teamtalk, which by the sounds of things was light on tactical nuance, heavy on up and at ‘em motivational talk.
“It wasn’t long. I just said, ‘You don’t play finals, you win them. Either we die on the pitch and bring the cup to Milan, or we die because we’re not going back to Milan. So, let’s go back there, and take the cup with us.’”
And there perhaps completed the cycle, from a man unwanted in Barcelona and a makeweight in a more glamourous but hubristically doomed deal, to chief motivator for the first treble in Italian football history. Eto’o only scored 16 goals that season: if you just looked at the statistics for the seasons either side, when he scored 36 and 37, you would assume he was injured or suffered some sort of goal scoring existential crisis in 2009/10. But in reality, he had sacrificed his instincts for the team, and for Mourinho. “The real Eto’o was seen in the second year,” he told Gazzetta. “Still one of the most decisive strikers in Europe.”
Gab Marcotti summed Eto’o up thus: “22 years as a professional, 13 clubs, four league titles, two league titles, one Africa Cup of Nations, one gold medal. Always number one in the hearts of all right-minded, right-thinking and God-fearing people.”
Mourinho left Inter that night to delve into the dark side, his soul swallowed by Real where something inside him disappeared, never to return. As for Eto’o, he had that prolific season under Benitez, took a few skip-fulls of Anzhi Makhachkala’s money and was then reunited with Mourinho at Chelsea in 2013. Eto’o said, upon arrival at Stamford Bridge: “I say thanks to God for giving me a season with him at Inter.”
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