Douala, Cameroon – There’s a small soccer discipline within the district of New Bell that, at first look, just isn’t a lot to have a look at. The roughly 100-metre-long pitch is tough, unkempt, replete with puddles and bookended by small picket goalposts wearing torn inexperienced nets.
The sector just isn’t solely a logo of the impoverished nature of New Bell, but it surely additionally reveals the group’s deep attachment to the attractive recreation. In spite of everything, it’s the place the place soccer legend Samuel Eto’o first realized to play.
At a really younger age, his household moved right here from Cameroon’s political capital, Yaounde – the place he was born. Pals and group members watched Eto’o develop from a boy who kicked a ball round within the streets to one of many world’s most deadly strikers.
Dominique Essindi, a childhood pal, additionally grew up right here and lives only a stone’s throw from the pitch, a relentless reminder of their childhood. At 48, he nonetheless clearly remembers the matches he performed together with his aggressive pal Eto’o earlier than they had been youngsters.
“Samuel by no means appreciated defeat,” he informed Al Jazeera, including that again then, neighbourhoods performed one another in what’s regionally known as Interquarter Soccer.
“I bear in mind we had a match at Ecole Publique de New Bell Bassa, and he got here late once we had been two targets down. He wished to enter the pitch, however the coach saved him on the bench. Eto’o was livid. However when he entered, he performed exceptionally nicely and even scored a purpose. The match lastly resulted in a draw.”
Initially, Essindi revealed, the group thought on the time that Eto’o‘s associates had been extra more likely to break by means of. Not many imagined he would turn into a world star.
“Folks thought his associates, Ghislain Chameni, Jean Ondoa and even his youthful brother David Eto’o would develop as much as be higher gamers,” he mentioned.
However by means of sturdy coaching, onerous work and dedication, Essindi admitted, Eto’o‘s success was assured. “He had a New Bell mindset – by no means surrender, regardless of robust occasions,” Essindi added.
“Eto’o wasn’t afraid to endure. That has been his driving power ’til as we speak. He has the mindset of a winner who is aware of the place he’s from.”
Essindi, who prides himself on being top-of-the-line defenders in New Bell in his early days, is amongst those that did recognise Eto’o’s soccer potential. Eto’o‘s skill to regulate the ball, dribble and rating breathtaking targets was obvious earlier than he performed later for FC Barcelona or Inter Milan. He displayed these expertise first in his residence nation as a striker for groups together with Union Camerounaise de Brasseries (UCB) in 1996.
“We believed Samuel Eto’o would turn into an enormous participant on this nation, when he performed within the quarter-final in opposition to the good Tonnerre Kalara Membership of Yaounde within the Cup of Cameroon,” Essindi recalled. “Eto’o, very younger and slim on the time, singlehandedly helped UCB thrash Tonnerre within the two-legged encounter. That was once we knew that boy had nice potential.”
Eto’o informed CNN throughout an interview in 2020 that he grew up by the hands of the individuals on this neighbourhood and that elders took care of him and suggested him as a result of they felt he had one thing and will find yourself profitable.
New Bell is a spot reputed for delinquency. Its enduring legacy, the Douala New Bell Jail, is a facility inbuilt 1902 for a capability of 800 inmates, however now holds greater than that.
“If we go somewhat additional, we are going to see that the Central Jail is close by. It appeared extra doubtless that I’d find yourself in that jail,” Eto’o informed CNN in 2020.
However the participant didn’t find yourself there. As a substitute, he left Cameroon at 16, certain for Europe, the place his illustrious profession took off.
Eto’o‘s household lived in a modest home. The constructing, secured by a gray gate, has a fence that’s tiled mid-way. It’s perched between a church and different small homes. Since Eto’o and his household left the neighbourhood, the condominium has been rented out.
On this neighbourhood in New Bell, it’s no shock to see laundry ropes tied in opposition to pillars, with garments unfold out in entrance of individuals’s properties. Some who reside in buildings unfold their washed garments on guardrails. A couple of metres away from the previous Eto’o household house is the residence of the chief of New Bell Block 10, Chief Emmanuel Tonye, who watched Eto’o play soccer as a younger boy.
Sitting outdoors a neighborhood bar simply beside his residence, the ruler reminisced about Eto’o‘s ardour for the sport.
“Eto’o … is a footballer created by God. He’s a born footballer. That’s as a result of despite the fact that his mom was only a dealer, he nonetheless dreamed of changing into a soccer participant,” Tonye informed Al Jazeera. “Identical to different moms [in New Bell], Eto’o‘s mom would beat him up and ship him again residence when she noticed him taking part in soccer.”
On the time, he mentioned, most mother and father in New Bell thought of the game a waste of time.
However now, issues have modified.
“Because of Samuel Eto’o‘s picture, some mother and father at the moment are motivating their kids to play soccer,” Raymond Mbeleck, who resides in New Bell, informed Al Jazeera. “Right now, all people desires to be a footballer as a result of all of them dream of changing into an Eto’o sometime. There are such a lot of gifted children right here who play the sport.
Their icon, Eto’o, who retired from the sport in 2019, has additionally completed one other milestone in soccer administration – changing into the president of the Cameroon Soccer Federation (Fecafoot). His December 2021 victory signalled a brand new daybreak for the game in Cameroon, in line with many New Bell residents.
“When the Fecafoot election outcomes had been launched, the complete New Bell group was in a festive temper. There was pleasure all over the place; it was monumental and improbable … Folks right here in New Bell shouted from all corners of their properties,” Essindi mentioned.
“Now we have at all times wished Eto’o on the helm of Fecafoot,” Mbeleck added. “That’s as a result of we knew he would change many issues. I lately realized that a few of our compatriots who performed soccer overseas have returned to the nation to play within the Cameroonian championship. This reveals that Samuel Eto’o‘s presence in Fecafoot performed an enormous function.”
At one level, Mbeleck added, Cameroonian soccer was taking place the drain: “However in Eto’o‘s close-to-one-year keep at Fecafoot, we now see a vibrant future for soccer on this nation.”
That is simply one of many causes the individuals of New Bell maintain the soccer legend in such excessive esteem.
“He’s a giver. He helps individuals in want and solves individuals’s issues right here. Now we have many wealthy individuals in New Bell, however Eto’o is the one wealthy one who provides. He helps everybody with out discrimination, we’re at all times pleased with Eto’o,” Tonye mentioned.
As he speaks these phrases, individuals seated round him nod in settlement. It speaks volumes of how a lot the group values the person they name “The New Bell Child”.