I accompanied Samuel Eto’o on a trip from Paris to Lyon to collect his MBA and honorary doctorate. This former footballer hopes to play a role in the future of continental sport, and perhaps even in politics.
Le Bourget airport, on 19 March. I was on time, but he was early and waiting in a cosy lounge. “Croissant? Orange juice?” he asked with a smile. Right away, Samuel Eto’o addressed me informally. This was in direct contrast to our first meeting at the headquarters of Jeune Afrique back in November 2019.
At the time, the suspicious football star had maintained some distance. He had spoken little, but had nevertheless answered our questions, talking slowly with an accent that was difficult to place. Eto’o was born and raised in Cameroon and then moved to France.
During his football career, he played in Spain, Italy, England, Russia, Turkey and Qatar, and now enjoys a comfortable retirement between his residences in Paris, Abidjan (Georgette, his wife, is from Côte d’Ivoire), Douala and Milan, where part of his family lives. Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian historian and post-colonial theorist, might describe Eto’o as an archetypal Afropolitan.
CEOs and PSG stars
Through a large window overlooking the tarmac, we watched a private plane readying itself for takeoff. Sporting a black cap, T-shirt, grey flannel winter trousers and sneakers, the 40-year-old retiree looked 10 years younger. It was still possible to discern, despite his casual manner, the features of the kid who grew up in the tough neighbourhood of New Bell, in Douala.
That day, he moved unabashedly through Europe’s largest business airport, usually frequented by all sorts of businessmen, CEOs and influencers. Here, travellers arrive and leave when they want, fares vary between €2,000 and €10,000 per flight hour, and the big bosses share the lounges at Le Bourget with high-income athletes such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather, Roger Federer and the footballers from Paris Saint-Germain, who flew that day on a luxurious Boeing 737 Executive provided by the Emir of Qatar.
Between 2011 and 2013, when his career began to decline, Eto’o played for the Russian club Anji Makhatchkala, which offered him an annual salary of €20.5m ($24.5m), making him – at the time – the highest-paid football player in the world.
“Becoming a football leader”
9am. It was time to leave and our host bundled up in an oversized cream-coloured coat. Eto’o took off and headed south-east, towards Lyon. The ex-footballer was heading there to receive his diploma, an MBA in management from the École de Commerce de Lyon (ECLyon). Back in 2019, he had initially intended to go to the prestigious US university Harvard. Sensing a good publicity stunt, the director of ECLyon, who planned to launch a specialised course in sports management, took advantage of the opportunity to grant him an honorary doctorate, in addition to the MBA.
As soon as the aircraft was in the air, Eto’o fell asleep. “I arrived from Abidjan early this morning,” he later said to me. The day before, the top brass of Ivorian politics and African showbiz had gathered at the funeral of Hamed Bakayoko – whom Eto’o called “a friend and a brother” – who died of cancer on 10 March in a hospital in Freiburg, Germany.
Translation: Ladies and Gentlemen,
With your permission…I would like to start by sending a small message that is close to my heart.
Dear big brother,
As I speak in this room, you have left this world for good. And in spite of all my immense pain, I wish you a good rest.
I am also thinking about Papa Manu Dibango, Sidy Diallo, my little brother Arafat and all those dear ones who, like you, are asleep.
May the Lord accept you into his kingdom!
10 am. We landed at Lyon-Bron airport, France’s second-largest airport. We had two hours to “kill” in a hotel before the graduation ceremony. Eto’o went off to work on his speech. The retired footballer was keen to succeed. He has 12 million followers on Facebook, 1.5 million on Twitter and 5.4 million on Instagram. He knows how much a mistake can cost on social media.
He wants to show that a former football player need not limit himself to becoming a trainer, coach or TV presenter. “Too few former players, for example, aspire to become football managers. Yet they have the advantage of knowing the game. They could contribute to improving the profession by moving from the field to governing bodies,” he said.
In March, he had dreamed of becoming the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) before changing his mind, as the Cameroonian authorities argued it wasn’t the right time to do so. He hopes that this diploma, as well as the distinction that he received that day in Lyon, will open up a new path for him.
“You inspire young people”
12pm. Eto’o swapped his T-shirt and sneakers for a dark suit and tie. He was welcomed to ECLyon with masks and social-distancing measures, canapés of smoked salmon and champagne. “Hey, don’t forget that we will have a late lunch on the plane during the return flight,” said his faithful friend Qualité, who accompanied him with the availability and discretion of an aide-de-camp.
Before the honorary degree was presented, Hervé Diaz, the school’s director, paid him a beautiful tribute. “To shine is not just to shine for oneself. You shine because you inspire young people,” he said, before apologising on behalf of the Central African Republic’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who was unable to attend.
The special honoree read his speech with a hesitancy typical of those inexperienced in making speeches, but his charisma made up for it. This self-confidence, which made a pool of his detractors quick to criticise his inflated ego, was also his strength and remains so today. It also strongly suggests that he won’t be spending his retirement polishing his trophies. Although he began his career by “chasing a ball”, Eto’o nonetheless has a desire to gain the necessary knowledge in order to open up new horizons.
Translation: Friday 19 March 2021 – Lyon Business School
The title of Doctor Honoris Causa, the school’s highest academic distinction, has been awarded to football legend Samuel ETO’O.
Eto’o is convinced that the world of business is waiting for him. He has learned from his unfortunate experience of working in the mobile phone sector with Set’Mobile, that he should dust himself off and try again. He is investing in tech and is particularly keen on a project launched in Senegal within the freight and air transport sectors.
Hamed Bayayoko started from nothing
He also paid tribute to his friend Bakayoko, a self-taught politician who started from nothing and became prime minister of a leading French-speaking African country, in his speech. He quoted Frantz Fanon, then Nelson Mandela, who had once said to him: “You are an African soldier.”
At the end of the ceremony, sixty-year-old Jean-Jacques N’Domba (aka “Géomètre”), a former football player who had played for the Lyon-established team Diables Rouge du Congo during their golden age, came to congratulate him.
Then Maxwel Cornet, the Olympique Lyonnais and the Eléphants de Côte d’Ivoire’s defender, arrived to greet him in a roaring midnight-blue Ferrari. Taking advantage of his fame, Eto’o dreams of bringing the football “family” together to make an impact.
Even though he denies having political ambitions, the former striker of the Lions Indomptables seems to be trying to build up his brand. A few weeks earlier, he had demonstrated his generosity and gathered proof of his popularity during a trip to the Extrême-Nord region of Cameroon. “Perhaps one day, when I am 60, I will run for mayor,” he told us in 2019. Two years later, he does not want to talk about that again. The ups and downs of Cameroonian politics require caution.
But regarding politics, he already possesses relevant know-how, especially when it comes to flattering people who matter. He says that he found Ahmad Ahmad, the former CAF president, “to be a very wonderful person. I am happy to count myself among his friends, and I would like to thank him for all the hard work he has put into organising the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations, which will be hosted by Cameroon. It is very good that it will go ahead as planned, given all the big investments made by my country.”
Regarding Patrice Motsepe, Ahmad’s CAF successor, Eto’o said that “he is a brilliant person in the business world. We hope he will find the time to take continental football to the next level.” And finally, he describes Gianni Infantino, the head of FIFA, as “a friend. I have often disagreed with him, but he will always have my support.”
Back to Africa
5pm. Back to Lyon-Bron airport. We had to get back to Paris before the curfew, but we couldn’t board the plane. A squad of firemen jumped out of their truck, demanding photos and autographs. Eto’o lent himself to the task with good grace. Five minutes after take-off, the meal was served. It consisted of wheat flour fritters with red beans, Cameroon’s most popular street-food dish, washed down with Top Pamplemousse. Even if you climb to the top of the world, you never forget where you came from.
A few days later, I met him again briefly in his apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. He was back to being quite polite and formal. It was as if he suddenly needed to put some distance between us. His trophy room is to the left of his cosy living room. He caressed the three replicas of the trophy awarded to the winners of the UEFA Champions League before settling into an armchair, the arms and backrest of which had been reupholstered and are the colours of the Lions Indomptables.
Eto’o’s mind was already elsewhere, as he was due to fly back to Africa the next day.