“No mas!” he shouted, wagging his finger furiously like an exasperated parent.
Samuel Eto’o was incensed. He marched defiantly toward the touchline, swatting aside pleas from the referee and players. His colleagues tried to dissuade him, but the Cameroon international had reached his fill of the racial abuse spewed so casually from Spanish crowds. Whether Eto’o’s determined march was fueled by principle, utter frustration, desperation, rage, embarrassment, or, more likely, a combined cocktail, Barcelona’s goal-scoring machine was done being the bullseye for Real Zaragoza fans’ monkey chants.
In February 2006, Eto’o was, arguably, the best striker in the world. Playing to his left, or sometimes tucked behind him, sat Ronaldinho Gaucho, the ever-rampaging, flamboyant Brazilian — without question Earth’s most entertaining and dynamic soccer star.
After the awful scenes in Zaragoza, it was Ronaldinho who went on record saying he would have followed his Cameroonian teammate’s lead.
“I would have gone with Eto’o after hearing the insults he received throughout the game,” he said. “I tried to calm him down and told him that he was bigger than the people who were insulting him. We hope that actions like those of Samuel’s mean these kinds of incidents won’t happen again.”
The pleas ultimately worked.
“I was leaving the field and if it wasn’t for Rijkaard, my teammates and the referee, I would have done it,” Eto’o recalled.
“In that moment you start thinking whether there is something wrong with being black,” he added.
That last point is a sentiment that likely contributed to his decision to “protect [his] family” by no longer allowing them to attend games in Spain.
You could feel the pain, anger, and helplessness in his words.
Still, had he walked, Ronaldinho would have been right beside or behind him, just as he was in Rijkaard’s tactical plans. In context, that’s incredible. In 2006, Ronaldinho — the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner, Nike darling, and, probably, the world’s most valuable commercial soccer commodity aside from David Beckham — said he was ready to abandon a La Liga game if Eto’o had decided to make a stand against racial abuse.
Eto’o, even at 24 years old, had real power.
It wasn’t the first time Eto’o had gone through this in Spain. The previous year, Zaragoza fans showered Eto’o with monkey chants during Barcelona’s 4-1 victory at the same stadium. After scoring his team’s third goal, Eto’o danced around like a monkey as Zaragoza fans threw peanuts on the field. “I am a man of color, and if somebody pays for a ticket to make a monkey noise at me, then I’ll act like a monkey,” the then-23-year-old said after the game.
“Sometimes I think: Is something going to happen to my daughter in school? We have to stop this because one day you don’t know what might happen away from the pitch.
“At the end of the day, I earn a lot of money and sometimes even see myself as white, but they could kill a black kid on the street some day.
“Perhaps clubs can do something, but those who hold most power are white footballers like Deco, who I thank from the heart for celebrating my goal with me, white journalists, who can write against this kind of thing in the papers and speak about it on the radio and television and help colored people, because these things are happening and we can’t hide from it.”
At 23 years old, Eto’o, who first came to Spain at age 16, had already graduated from uttering the cliches so many athletes employ, often because they have nothing to say or can’t be bothered with wading into unwanted controversy.
But not Eto’o. As a consequence, many of the words he delivered during his Spanish adventure have framed how he’s been perceived off the field ever since — as a fearless speaker of truth to power, someone who demanded to be treated with dignity and demanded a game that met the same standard.
The more you listened to Eto’o, the more you realized he’d spent plenty of time either thinking about or reacting to racism in soccer, perhaps too much time for a young man in his early 20s. Little did he know, he was creating a blueprint for dealing with racial abuse — one, however, that could easily be used against him years later.
One thing he said back in 2005, while discussing a Nike campaign to address racism, would be particularly relevant: “Racism,” he noted, “has not only started now, and if someone wants to launch a campaign against it then good, but there is always a something behind it in the end. Money.”
Fast-forward to 2011. Eto’o had since moved from Barcelona to Italy’s Internazionale. Five years after threatening to walk off the field in Zaragoza, Spain, due to rampant racial abuse, a 30-year-old Eto’o signed a contract that would reportedly net him a cool $29 million per year — almost $560,000 per week — with Anzhi Makhachkala of the Russian Premier League.
Several months into the season, Congolese defender Christopher Samba, Eto’o’s Anzhi teammate, was making his way to the locker room after the team suffered a 1-0 defeat to fellow Russian Premier League team Lokomotiv Moscow. As Samba approached the stairs, someone in the Lokomotiv Stadium stands casually tossed a banana at him. This metaphorically-loaded bundle of potassium, according to an Anzhi spokesman, came from the Lokomotiv VIP section.
Samba picked it up and hurled it back into the stands.
Eto’o, still new to Russia, only two months earlier said, “I know that Roberto Carlos had certain problems [with racial abuse] before my arrival in Makhachkala but this problem did not affect me at all.”
Two short months later, there was his teammate, humiliated. The Russian Football Union spoke of starting a dedicated anti-racism task force in the aftermath of the Samba incident.
Samba, in a statement on Anzhi’s website, said he was “very upset that such misconduct took place in view of children who were sitting on those very stands.” Perhaps equally upsetting was the initial Lokomotiv reaction: “This didn’t happen and couldn’t have happened,” Lokomotiv president Olga Smorodskaya shot back. “I watched how our fans behaved in the stadium.”
“I would like to bring to people’s attention that all these banana stories happen only with [Anzhi]. Roberto Carlos has had two bananas this year.
“No one saw anything. If this event actually took place, then it was done surreptitiously. It all looks like a provocation [to make Lokomotiv appear racist]. I don’t know on whose part.”
There were plenty of statements — reasonable, unreasonably hyperbolic, and flat-out lies — flying around from vested parties. But what you wouldn’t have known from public statements about the incident was that Eto’o was on the field that day against Lokomotiv, wearing the captain’s armband. He was also in the locker room after the incident. But you’ll struggle to find a public word about it from the man with the reputation as a fearless speaker of truth. Not a peep about the racial abuse suffered by his teammate.
In August 2011, Eto’o signing his bumper deal with Anzhi, when he could have had his choice of top European teams, caused quite a stir for several reasons: For starters, Eto’o’s lavish salary, per reports at the time, made the four-time African Player of the Year the highest-paid soccer player in the world, ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ahead of Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, and Alex Rodriguez, too, for that matter.
That’s crazy, considering we’re talking about a 30-year-old forward playing at a Russian club that no one really knew existed months earlier.
Which is why “What in the hell is an Anzhi Makhachkala?” quickly became a popular question in soccer circles. People soon learned: Anzhi, founded in 1991, was located in Makhachkala, in the Russian republic of Dagestan, one of the nation’s poorest regions. In 2011, Dagestan was, according to Human Rights Watch’s Senior Russia Researcher Tanya Lokshina, Russia’s most unstable region.
The BBC, only months after Eto’o’s summer 2011 arrival, called Dagestan “the most dangerous place in Europe” — not Russia; Europe — highlighting “bomb attacks almost daily, shootouts between police and militants, tales of torture and of people going missing.”
A year earlier, Der Spigel called Dagestan “almost ungovernable,” citing a two-week period when “a high-ranking judge, a Christian priest, three police officers, and mayor were shot to death, policemen were injured when a bomb exploded, and another bomb caused a train to derail.”
That’s why Anzhi players all lived and trained in Moscow, and then flew the roughly 1,200 miles to Makhachkala for home matches. Each way.
Welcome to Anzhi, Samuel.
But another issue lingered prominently, draping itself all over the Eto’o conversations: How would Eto’o handle the Russian Premier League, with its long-standing reputation as a place where racist fans flourish?
Given the backdrop of Dagestan’s daily chaos, it’s telling that racism was widely considered a bigger impediment to Eto’o’s pending life in Russia than the violence infecting the Caucus republic. Jonathan Wilson, writing in the Guardian at the time of Eto’o’s signing, assumed the Cameroonian facing racial abuse in Russia was a foregone conclusion. In fact, any meaty piece about Eto’o’s move to Russia was bound to at least mention his inevitable bout with racism due to a history of flying bananas, primate chants, and neo-Nazi displays in the Russian Premier League.
Eto’o, it seemed, was heading right into the belly of a deeply bigoted beast.
And so began a slightly bizarre chapter in Eto’o’s life, if you use Eto’o’s previous life and reputation as an outspoken critic of people who revel in dehumanizing others as a measure of the man.
Dagestan-born billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, 49, purchased Anzhi in January 2011. Once a production line economist at an electrical plant in Makhachkala making $250 a month and sharing a room with his wife in an adjacent worker’s hostel, Kerimov — who was also raised and educated in Dagestan — quickly rose through the local ranks before using his business acumen to start amassing wealth. A 2012 in-depth Financial Times piece on Kerimov also alludes to close and perhaps too convenient ties to Kremlin leaders as the Dagestani investor started his march toward the pages of Forbes in earnest. Over the years, on the back of some ballsy investments, enormous loans from Russian banks, and an appetite for risk that, according to Forbes, saw his net worth drop $14.4 billion in one year, Kerimov became a major player, not just in Russia, but in the global investment community.
He developed a taste for fancy things, like fast cars (he once wrapped a $650,000 Ferrari Enzo around a pole in 2006, nearly dying) and getting Shakira, Christina Aguilera, or Beyoncé to serenade guests at his private gatherings. Those expensive tastes would come in handy as he sought to bankroll Anzhi’s climb from complete obscurity to global relevance, all on the back of a few outrageous investments made within months of gaining control of the club.
Kerimov’s first major move was to bring in 38-year-old former Brazil international and Real Madrid star Roberto Carlos. A Bugatti Veyron — which, in 2011, would run you a few million dollars — and an annual salary of $7.2 million seemed to do the trick.
Kerimov’s next major acquisition: Samuel Eto’o.
But why was Kerimov suddenly hurling reams of cash into a club smack dab in the middle of what was essentially a war zone, in a league where teams are anything but profitable?
Since 2008, Kerimov has been Dagestan’s representative in the Federation Council, Russia’s parliament. Thus, he has a vested interest in normalizing life in his chaotic home. He told Financial Times reporter Catherine Belton that “the football club stands out against all the negative news. People are starting to hope for the better … Such stars don’t play everywhere, and, look, they’re in Makhachkala! People have something to be proud of. It means they can see something positive there and they gain the motivation to work.”
You may have heard this line of reasoning before. It’s the “soccer will save us” argument, advanced by Sepp Blatter and many others.
It was a narrative furthered by Eto’o when speaking about his new surroundings.
“At first sight, you would never say that there are political problems,” he said to The Guardian. “I have had the chance to discover a really beautiful region in Dagestan and, so far, my experiences have been really nice. I have my bodyguard, but he is with me in London or Paris or wherever so there is nothing special or different in Makhachkala.”
Fun. Soccer arrived and brought stars, and now the region seemed to be clearing up nicely.
Except the place Eto’o described sounded a hell of a lot different than the Dagestan so many others have described.
The Kremlin had long poured police and military resources into Dagestan, hoping somehow to curb the threat of Islamists waging battle with the Kremlin-backed local government. The Kremlin would have loved nothing more than for Kerimov’s sporting project to work, for his propaganda to be realized. And if the public face of that project, Samuel Eto’o, could get on board with the rebranding of not just the region, but of Russian soccer in general as the nation struggled with a projected race problem in the buildup to the 2018 World Cup, then everyone could get a little something extra out of the relationship.
As Kerimov and other Russian billionaires likely know, cozying up to the uber-elite, especially in Russia, has its privileges.
But the privileges don’t come without responsibility. Historically, in Russia, the same hand that enables success can take it away just as quickly, if you don’t play the game. That game also applies to billionaires, who’ve been referred to as Putin’s hostages. Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a Russian billionaire with a tense relationship with the Kremlin, was arrested last year for money laundering. Another Russian oligarch told CNBC, on the condition of anonymity, that Yevtushenkov was arrested because the government wanted control of one of his businesses.
As Dmitry Navosha, head of Russian sports website sports.ru told Bloomberg, Russia’s billionaires invest in “high-profile projects and money-losing sports teams to maintain good standing with the Kremlin.” Putin looks at the projects, like Spartak Moscow’s $430 million home, Spartak Stadium/Otkrytiye Arena, financed by Spartak’s billionaire owner Leonid Fedun (co-founder of Russia’s second-largest oil producer), and says things like, “This is good for the team, its fans, sportsmen, Russian football, and for all sport enthusiasts.”
Chelsea owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, at one point bankrolled the entire Russian national team, including its Dutch then-manager Gus Hiddink’s $7 million annual salary. He paid £20 million for a new state-of-the-art training facility for the Russian national team. In 2010, Putin told the Chelsea owner to “open his wallet a little” to help fund projects for the 2018 World Cup. “It’s no big deal – he won’t feel the pinch,” Putin said, probably smirking. “He has plenty of money.”
By 2013, according Abramovich’s spokesman, the Chelsea owner had spent $200 million on Russian soccer.
All things considered, it would be naive to look at Kerimov’s seemingly frivolous spending on a team in an ungovernable, wildly unstable republic, and his audacious plans for a 45,000-seat stadium in Makhachkala, without wondering how the Kremlin’s invisible hand might be factoring into the grand plans.
Similarly, when Eto’o was made the richest athlete in the world upon joining Anzhi, it’s not crazy to think that Kerimov — and somehow Kremlin interests — was buying more than a seasoned player to fill up the scoresheet on weekends.
Sure, Kerimov was buying a veteran player, but he was also buying a prominent black man with a stellar reputation for speaking out against racism and injustice. Eto’o was a respected symbol, and if anyone could help paper over public perceptions of Russian racism, it was him. And if there was any time that Russia needed him to do it, it was as it was gearing up for the 2018 World Cup amidst cries of out-of-control racism.
In the two years that Eto’o played in the Russian Premier League (2011-2013):
- Zenit St. Petersburg’s largest fan group wrote a letter to the board demanding that the team refrain from signing black or gay players.
- Eto’o’s teammate was hit with a banana by someone in the stands.
- Dynamo Moscow fans hurled monkey chants at Spartak’s Moscow’s Nigerian forward Emmanuel Emenike every time he touched the ball. Emenike was hit with a $17,000 fine and a suspended sentence after he responded to the abuse with an “offensive gesture.” Dynamo received no punishment.
- And CSKA Moscow’s Liberian winger Sekou Oliseh said that he was a constant recipient of monkey chants whenever he squared off against Zenit or Spartak Moscow.
The entire time, Eto’o was silent in public. He didn’t say one meaningful word condemning these incidents or often hilariously limp punishments handed out to clubs. It seemed as if there wasn’t a monkey chant or a tossed banana that would make him step out of line.
Perhaps now it’s worth remembering what Eto’o said in that interview six years before signing with Anzhi: “Racism has not only started now, and if someone wants to launch a campaign against it then good, but there is always a something behind it in the end. Money.”
A smartly dressed Eto’o stood on stage at St. Petersburg’s extravagant Konstantin Palace, on July 25, 2015, holding up thin, blue slips of paper with country names on them. Eto’o was no longer playing in Russia, despite his unsolicited proclamation, just months after his 2011 arrival, that he was going to play with Anzhi until the end of his career. Kerimov had decided to part ways with Eto’o after suffering two heavy blows: one, a significant investment loss in one of his Russian companies, and an Anzhi league loss, after which Kerimov reportedly said Anzhi was “not worth wasting nerves and health on.”
Nevertheless, there was Eto’o, standing on a stage two years later as a draw assistant for the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
It was the same week ex-Arsenal player Emmanuel Frimpong, now with Russian Premier League club Ufa, was suspended for two games for flipping off a fan who was racially abusing him. It was the same week Brazil international Hulk came out to support Frimpong by saying he gets racially abused “almost every [Russian] game.”
Hulk, like Eto’o, was also scheduled to be at the Preliminary Draw in an official capacity, but shortly after his comments about the unsavory side of the Russian game — just one day before the event — he suspiciously withdrew because of, according to a statement on Zenit’s website, “the ongoing training process and upcoming away match against FC Ural on Sunday. Long flight and time zone changes make it impossible for me to be presented.”
No one has since addressed the fact that all of these commitments were known when his participation was first announced.
Despite all the dour news, Eto’o seemed to be in a jolly mood. He was interviewed in the build-up to the draw, right on the heels of the Hulk and Frimpong sagas, and had nothing but pleasant things to say about Russia, which isn’t that outrageous considering he was there on business.
Actually, he went a step further than saying pleasant things.
“Russia,” he told FIFA.com, “has everything it needs to stage the greatest World Cup ever.”
His words sounded like those of a paid shill, not a champion of social justice.
As Eto’o stood on that stage in St. Petersburg, all of this started to sink in. Something about his relationship with Russia felt off — cheap, even — especially if you had any familiarity with his long-standing reputation as a seeker of justice and defiant stances toward intolerance.
Just four months earlier, Eto’o stood on another stage, this time at London’s Kensington Palace. He was collecting the European Medal of Tolerance, awarded by the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR). Russian-born ECTR president Moshe Kantor praised Eto’o for having the “courage and will to stand against the racists, building awareness and inspiring fellow footballers and millions of football fans.”
Eto’o spoke for about 14 minutes that evening. He talked about those who stood by him, like his former Barcelona teammate Deco, who was in attendance that night. He also devoted several minutes to that night in Zaragoza when he almost walked off the field, where he learned the only response to that type of abuse was to “to stand up and shout.”
Notably, Eto’o didn’t reference Russia a single time during those 14 minutes. Not once.
He did, however, mention Russia while speaking to Reuters earlier that evening. “My experience in Russia was the most beautiful of my sporting career,” he said. “I came away with a very good impression.”
He also spoke to CNN. “At the World Cup in Russia, you’ll see that there won’t be [racist] incidents like this,” he said. “I hope there aren’t because I’ve played there and I had a great time there and I know the efforts that the Russians are making to try to improve certain things that have happened there, and we have to support these efforts.”
And then he got more vague:
“Football is beautiful. Football is beautiful because whether you win, draw, or lose, you can go and shake your opponent’s hand whether they’re white or black or red or blue.
“This is football. This is where football wins, but when there are incidents like this, it’s shameful, but it doesn’t mean this will happen in the World Cup just because it’s in Russia.
“I was there and I lived a beautiful experience.”
That was it. That was what he had to say about racism in Russia.
Nothing Samuel Eto’o has said over the last five years, since his move to Russia, has been remotely critical of the 2018 host. Time and again, given the chance to go on record with some sort of critique, anything, really, about racial abuse in Russian soccer, Eto’o has resorted to pumping out the same empty clichés that probably would’ve made his eyes roll back in his head had someone uttered them to him a decade ago in Spain.
Remember his comments about Deco and other teammates standing up for him at Barcelona? Well, apparently the notion of solidarity in the fight against racism in Russian soccer died the day he signed that jaw-dropping deal.
None of this is to suggest that Eto’o is a passive spectator when it comes to social awareness and charitable work. Make no mistake, Eto’o does an incredible amount of good around the world. His foundation has built academies in Cameroon, Gabon and Kenya. He still speaks out publicly about injustices he sees, in places that aren’t Russia. But all that good is precisely what makes his Russia silence so curious. Over the years he’s accumulated an incredible amount of goodwill by being outspoken about discrimination. People trust his voice on these issues. So when he says nothing about what’s been happening over the years in the Russian game, it registers loudly.
Of course, there’s no reason why Eto’o should be required to say anything about racism in Russia. He isn’t the one who has been abusing black players. Eto’o was never the one in the stands throwing bananas or chanting slurs. He wasn’t in charge of stadium security.
But these realities never stopped him from speaking up elsewhere.
Could there be something bigger at play? It’s possible Eto’o determined that being vocal and disruptive isn’t the most productive way for someone in his position to bring about change. As ESPN’s Gary al-Smith put it when rumors of Eto’o moving to Russia for a big payday began: “In nations ruled by the likes of Cameroon’s quasi-dictator Paul Biya and Issa Hayatou (CAF President), wealthy people hold sway. Money buys power and Eto’o wants in.”
The same is true for access, as Kerimov, Abramovich, and a slew of other Russian billionaires could tell you. Russia has provided Eto’o with a lot of money, and thus both power and access. It could continue to do so if he continues to play his part. That power and access, in theory, could help Eto’o do a lot of things that he might not be able to accomplish by simply standing and shouting.
But what, exactly? What’s the longer play for Eto’o? What long-term gain of having powerful Russian friends trumps the need to viscerally respond to injustices occurring in Russian soccer? Is he positioning to be an African power broker? President of something?
(We reached out to Eto’o’s people and have yet to hear back.)
But until that game plan reveals itself, his long-standing reputation as a fearless speaker of truth to power, when it comes to Russia, stands in question. Until Eto’o can explain the difference between racial abuse in Russia and Spain (or Italy, where he also spoke out), and why he seems to have nothing to say now, his silence will be suspect. Until he explains why 23-year-old Eto’o, who feared for his daughter’s safety because of the unchecked racial abuse he saw in Spanish stadiums, wouldn’t be massively disappointed in 34-year-old Samuel Eto’o remaining silent and telling the world that Russia was about to put on the greatest World Cup ever, his silence will sit under a cloud of suspicion.
There’s nothing wrong with having obscenely rich, powerful friends.
But it does make you wonder how much it would cost for you to abandon your principles. As they say, everyone has a price. What’s yours?