CNN was with soccer legend Samuel Eto’o when he last visited his hometown in February, before the coronavirus pandemic forced countries around the world to shut down. Many of New Bell’s residents filled the streets when word spread that the international superstar had returned home. A woman, dressed only in a bath towel, quickly stepped out of the shower to greet him, not wanting to miss his chance.
“People go out en masse because I bring a feeling of happiness, hope,” said Eto’o, through a translator. “I hope Almighty God will still allow me to share that feeling with them.”
Chants of Eto’o’s name began to ring in the streets, and although large crowds began to form, they all respectfully gave him their space. At one point, they even formed a human chain to allow Eto’o to walk through the blocks and visit some of their loved ones.
“I grew up in the hands of the people you saw,” he said. “Some are my paternal uncles, and others are elderly in the neighborhood who took care of me in my teens; who advised me because they felt I had something and that I could get out.”
Then he pointed to a milestone for which his hometown is unfortunately known. “If we go a little further, we will see that the Central Prison is nearby. It seems more likely that it will end up in that prison.”
A legacy beyond soccer
Samuel Eto’o avoided prison. Instead, at the age of 16, he went to Europe to begin what would become a long and successful international football career, spanning more than two decades. He won the African Player of the Year award four times and helped Cameroon win his first gold medal at the 2000 Olympics.
The man who once teamed up with other greats like Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho in Barcelona became famous for his playing on the field, but here in Cameroon, he is considered for more than just his sports prowess.
The next morning, on a misty soccer field in Douala, Eto’o stood looking at a group of young players at work. He couldn’t help but pull one aside. “I explained to him how he should position himself when he plays,” said Eto’o. “How can you have an advantage over your opponent with the correct body position.”
“We are trying to create dreams,” Eto’o explained, naming several former academy players who now play for European teams.
Tchokote Gassi Christian hopes to join that list. He is one of the aspiring professional footballers who receives funds from the foundation. “I was not born into a wealthy family, so it was often difficult to return from training and find a ready meal to help me recover … I no longer have this problem.” Christian said. “In some countries, they are not so lucky as to have someone like Pope Samuel who helps young people to follow their dreams.”
‘The best goal we have scored’
Later that day, Eto’o made another stop. In a small room, he was sitting next to a new mother and hugging her little baby. The premature baby was receiving care in a place that is one of Eto’o’s proudest achievements. With a smile on his face, Eto’o said: “I think the best goal we have scored with the foundation has been the Samuel Eto’o Pavilion at the Lacquintinie Hospital.”
“I think that is the purpose of my life,” said Eto’o. “Contribute to the development of our society by helping the state and Cameroonians to have a building where people can come and say ‘here we can go home in good health’.”
In addition to the hospital and training academy, the Eto Foundation has funded and created projects to support education, health, and community development, including orphanages, scholarships, and road construction.
“Our history must be written by us and through us,” said Eto’o. “Don’t wait for others to come and do what we can do ourselves.”
Working to combat Covid-19
Although he is confined to his home in Paris during the pandemic, he has deployed his foundation to deliver “Stop Covid-19” kits containing masks, soap, rice, water and other items to help people in Cameroon stay home and disinfect themselves. .
According to the foundation’s director, Patrick Mbiele Happi, kits were delivered to 50,000 families in the four most affected cities, including Douala, the hometown of Eto’o. The foundation also distributed 22,000 washable masks to motorcyclists and taxi drivers, according to Happi.
While the world was a different place when Eto’o was back in Cameroon, he still talked about facing adversity in his country head-on. “I like challenges and especially success,” said the soccer legend. “So for me the motivation is: I’m done here, what am I going to do tomorrow? What do I need to do? There is a new challenge, so I’m in.”
Andrea Smith and Briana Duggan contributed to this story.