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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Samuel Eto’o, a legend accused of match-fixing, physical threats and inciting violence

Samuel Eto’o is one of Africa’s greatest players. His glittering career included two Africa Cup of Nations titles with Cameroon and four African Player of the Year awards, plus Champions League, Spanish and Italian league titles with Barcelona and Inter Milan.

The president of Cameroon’s football federation (Fecafoot) was a visible presence at this year’s AFCON, shedding tears of joy as Cameroon advanced to the knockouts and dancing with the team in the dressing room. Now they are out — after defeat to Nigeria at the weekend — the focus is likely to fall back on him alone.

He has packed a lot into his two years in charge. In June 2022, he was given a 22-month suspended prison sentence and fined £1.4million ($1.7m) after pleading guilty to a charge of tax fraud linked to his image rights when he played in Spain.

In May 2023, he announced that he was “proud” to become an ambassador for gambling company 1XBet, despite football’s world governing body FIFA’s ethics code forbidding “officials” from participating “either directly or indirectly” in betting or having any such association, with a maximum punishment of a three-year ban from football. When asked by The Athletic whether a president of a national football federation counts as an official, FIFA were unable to clarify their own rules.

Eto’o celebrates winning the Champions League with Inter in 2010 (Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)

At the Qatar World Cup, Eto’o apologised for, as he put it, “a violent altercation” with an Algerian journalist outside a stadium.

Now, The Athletic has seen WhatsApp messages, emails, letters and audio recordings that a former Fecafoot executive claims are of Eto’o and others, which the former executive says support a wide-ranging list of accusations, including that Eto’o and close aides were involved in match-fixing, abuse of power, physical threats, inciting violence and spreading false information in Cameroon.

The file was sent to FIFA’s Ethics Committee in July by former Fecafoot vice-president Henry Njalla Quan Junior and is also being investigated by CAF, Africa’s football federation.

In August, CAF said it was looking into “serious” claims of “improper conduct” made by various Cameroonian football stakeholders against Eto’o. 

CAF have told The Athletic that the investigation is still active but — as they made clear in their initial statement — Eto’o is “presumed to be innocent until an appropriate judicial body concludes otherwise”. FIFA declined to comment on whether they have started their own investigation. Eto’o’s lawyers, Vey & Associes — and Eto’o himself — were contacted by The Athletic for comment but didn’t respond. They have previously denied the claims, calling them “calumnious rumours”.

Though Njalla Quan Junior has submitted a dossier of what he claims is evidence, the strength of that evidence is yet to be tested and some of it is anonymous or indirect. But whatever the outcome, Eto’o and Cameroon football face an uncomfortable time due to the serious nature of the accusations, including from those within Fecafoot.

One of the claims Njalla Quan Junior makes is that Eto’o arranged for a key match to be fixed — involving the team owned by Njalla Quan Junior — after the former Fecafoot vice-president had asked for improvements in the standards and transparency at the organisation.

Njalla Quan Sports Academy’s (NQSA) match against Kumba City FC is described in the complaint as “the most scandalous… in the history of mankind”. At half-time of the first leg, it is alleged that a phone was put on loudspeaker so the referees could receive direct instructions from Eto’o himself. This claim is made by Njalla Quan Junior and is based on communication that he has had with a third party who wanted to remain anonymous.

Read our in-depth coverage of AFCON

Njalla Quan Junior claims the call was made by Valentine Nkwain, a close associate of Eto’o. There is video evidence of Nkwain sat on the pitch next to the match delegate during the game. However, Nkwain strongly denies that any such call occurred or that he was present in the referee’s room. 

The first match of a two-legged semi-final in Cameroon’s third tier turned into a farce. NQSA received five red cards (three players and two coaches) and four yellows. Opponents Kumba City were awarded two questionable penalties, with the first ordered to be retaken due to apparent encroachment after it had been saved. Over two legs, Kumba won 3-1 on aggregate.

This is not the only link between Eto’o and Nkwain, who is the owner of Victoria United. Eto’o has been accused of giving assurances to Nkwain that he would be able to help his team win promotion to the top division.

Eto’o is being investigated (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

In an 11-minute voice recording that appears to be a conversation between the pair, Eto’o is alleged to have said that “there are things that we can do” while warning Nkwain that he would need to be “very discreet”. Eto’o also suggests that he would be able to suspend a referee if needed and set up a meeting between himself and Nkwain to discuss the matter further, so that “we can take care of all of this”.

Victoria United — as Eto’o appears to have promised in the recording — were promoted to the first division after going on to win 11 of their last 17 matches after losing four of their first seven. 

Last year, Eto’o denied any ulterior motive in an interview with Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport: “I was talking to a friend, someone who invests in football and wants to make his club one of the best in Cameroon. I just reassured him by saying that I would have done everything possible to avoid any refereeing errors against him,” he said.

Nkwain told The Athletic that the conversation didn’t take place. However, Earshot — an audio analysis company based in London — concluded that the recording of the conversation was neither edited nor manipulated and with “a high degree of certainty” that the voice belonged to Nkwain.

Those in Cameroon who have made the claims against Eto’o believe FIFA has not acted quickly enough. A letter sent to FIFA president Gianni Infantino cites the comparatively swift action — an initial 90-day suspension within a few weeks — taken against former Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales for his unsolicited kiss on World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso. The letter accuses world football’s governing body of running “two-speed management”, saying Africa is treated like an “enclave where you can take liberties”. The letter signed by nine senior officials from Cameroonian football was also sent to CAF president Patrice Motsepe.

The dossier was received and acknowledged by FIFA, but that does not guarantee a full investigation by the Ethics Committee, which can refer it back to the auspices of the national association or confederation. Fecafoot held an investigatory meeting about the matter on January 30. Njalla Quan Junior wrote to them to say he would not be attending as he didn’t feel the meeting was fit for purpose.

The Athletic has seen a 10-page document supplemented by approximately 70 pieces of evidence detailing NQSA’s claims against Eto’o and four other Fecafoot officials, including Victoria United owner Nkwain. In addition, they claim 12 other people should be questioned in relation to the allegations raised.

The document describes a “very cordial working relationship” between Njalla Quan Junior and Eto’o until the former raised “some dysfunctional issues within Fecafoot” which NQSA says Eto’o did not like.

In a voice message NQSA claims was sent by Eto’o to Njalla Quan Junior, the former player said he was “tired of (Njalla Quan’s Junior’s) complaining”. Njalla Quan Junior was appointed president of the marketing, media and promotions committee of Fecafoot and felt his role was being undermined after, he says, he was denied access to key documents including sponsorship contracts.

The complaint alleges that Eto’o paid one of his associates a bribe of £1,200 ($1,500) to commence “dirty work” against Njalla Quan Junior. Though the complaint does not contain evidence of any payment, or any involvement of Eto’o, Njalla Quan Junior says the campaign against him began with a “threatening message” from the individual said to have been paid by Eto’o, which read: “I am a mafia of this revolution and in this specific mafia we do not betray our leaders. I have protected the interest of our mission till date. However, if you f**k with me be ready to carry the load of the circumstances.”

Njalla Quan Junior then sent a 19-page letter to Eto’o detailing his concerns about the running of Fecafoot and made recommendations about governance and ways to combat corruption. Within 24 hours, it is alleged that Eto’o met with two associates — one of which was Nkwain, nicknamed ‘Bobdiddy’ — to discuss a plan to discredit Njalla Quan Junior and fix a match involving NQSA.

Njalla Quan Junior says that he learned of the plan to manipulate the officials and asked the Fecafoot executive committee member in charge of refereeing, Stephane Foko Kamga, to attend so he could assess what happened. He agreed, but just before the match, Foko Kamga is said to have informed Njalla Quan Junior that his car had been broken into and he had received a “suspicious cryptic note” which read: “It’s beginning”.

After the controversial game, Njalla Quan Junior submitted an appeal to Fecafoot to get the game replayed. The next day, Eto’o commissioned his suspension and visited his local region with Nkwain for a meeting.

Eto’o takes part in Cameroon training in Qatar in 2022 (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

Njalla Quan Junior says he later learned from an anonymous informant that Fritz Etoke, the vice-president of Fecafoot for the South West Region, where the game took place, had said in a private WhatsApp exchange that NQSA had been “dealt” with owing to the “gross disrespect” Njalla Quan Junior had shown Eto’o by challenging him. Etoke was contacted by The Athletic for comment but didn’t respond.

In July last year, Njalla Quan Junior resigned and NQSA withdrew from Fecafoot competitions.

Njalla Quan Junior was given a 10-year ban from football by Fecafoot and handed a £12,000 fine. Fecafoot also accused him of corruption and of trying to influence referees himself.

The document concludes by urging FIFA to investigate a “scandal which does not honour the image of Cameroon and world football” and that “is sadly the new face of Cameroon football under Samuel Eto’o”.

One of Eto’o’s first actions upon coming to power was an attempt to extend his initial four-year term to seven with little consultation. The plan was rejected after it was escalated to FIFA.

He had been elected on a mandate of transforming Cameroon football, but little has been achieved, two years in.

Jean-Bruno Tagne ran Eto’o’s campaign for presidency. In December 2022, he released a book called L’Arnaque — which translates to “The Scam” — about his experiences, including witnessing Eto’o’s anger when an important document went missing. “Some members of the campaign team were almost in tears seeing Samuel Eto’o in a state he has never shown since the beginning of the adventure,” Tagne recalled.

Eyebrows were also raised when Wilfried Nathan Doualla, a relatively unknown 17-year-old player from Victoria United — the team implicated in one of the match-fixing allegations involving Eto’o and Nkwain — was given a surprise call-up to Cameroon’s AFCON squad.

“The kid is decent, but is he the best player in that position? Of course not,” said a national team journalist who had to remain anonymous to protect his career. “There were better options.”

Olliver Kadji, managing director of Kadji Academy where Eto’o started his career as a youngster, was shocked by the Doualla call-up but not surprised by the brazen nature of it.

“The bigger it is, the easier it passes,” he tells The Athletic. “It shows you that whatever Eto’o believes, he will then do anything to confirm that.”

Nkwain, Victoria United’s owner, says he never had any contact with Eto’o regarding Doualla’s call-up to the national team and refutes claims of favouritism.

At the other end of the scale to Doualla is the country’s most famous player, Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana. He came through Eto’o’s own academy but the two have clashed several times over squad selections, including Onana’s own last-minute AFCON call-up.

“Nothing happens at the federation without the president’s say-so,” says Kadji. “No decision, especially those big ones, are made without him.

“From experience, I don’t think you should assume that being close to him will exempt you from his decisions. If you’re not with him, you’re against him, basically.”

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(Top photo: Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

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