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Why is Eto'o vs Drogba even a debate?

17:30 GMT+3 08/03/2022
Didier Drogba & Samuel Eto'o
While both are regarded as the best strikers of their generation, popular belief makes the Cameroon icon superior...by some distance

‘Is Samuel Eto’o vs Didier Drogba even a debate?’

Ask observers of the sport and your question may not be entertained in many quarters, especially by the Cameroon icon himself, who took it upon himself to set the record straight after El-Hadji Diouf’s claim several years ago that he was the finest forward in African football history.

"None of them [Diouf and Drogba] can come and say that they were at my level or better, and it's not the fact that I say it, it's a fact, it's something that is there. I wanted to be number one and I have been throughout my career,” an impassioned Eto’o asserted. "Even if my brother Diouf the last time, with an extra glass, got a little lost, there is no debate.”

It was particularly on-brand for the uncompromisingly forthright four-time African Footballer of the Year to respond to Diouf...and Drogba was caught in the cross-fire.

Both icons of the African game, the pair of whom enjoy their birthdays on consecutive days this week, have constantly been compared, during and after their careers, which is often met with scorn owing to the fact many side with Barcelona’s top striker of the 2000s.

The Indomitable Lions’ top scorer’s longevity was second to none. His talent and ability were quickly recognised after he burst on to the scene as a teenager in the late 90s which foreshadowed international success in the new millennium.

Eto’o won Olympic Gold in 2000, which saw Africa win back-to-back titles at the football tournament after Nigeria’s Dream Team triumphed in Atlanta four years earlier. This was sandwiched between two Africa Cup of Nations’ titles in 2000 and 2002, a period that emphasised the dominance of Cameroon’s Golden Generation.

Their success heralded a succession of highly talented national teams in that decade, including Drogba’s Ivory Coast side.

While the emergence of some was slightly unexpected (chiefly Senegal) others simply underachieved despite having the individual and technical quality to thrive.

The Elephants, led by the Chelsea legend, fall into the second category. The West African nation, who were no match for most sides on the continent on paper, were backed by critics to make the most of their superiority, but ultimately flattered to deceive.

Drogba, until his retirement from the national team in 2014, became the poster boy for his nation’s inability to win their first Afcon title since 1992. They lost two finals too, both on penalties, with the then Blues frontman fluffing his lines in 2006 and 2012 against Egypt and Zambia respectively.

His failure to end the Elephants’ continental drought pales in comparison to Eto’o who won the showpiece on two occasions.

The Cameroonian’s higher standing in Africa is further underscored by his four African Footballer of the Year titles, double Drogba’s tally of two. The former’s tally of 18 goals at Afcon, the highest in history, also betters his rival’s haul of 11 by seven.

Away from the national team, Eto’o thrived in Europe with storied spells at Real Mallorca, Barcelona and Inter Milan. He helped Mallorca to their first-ever Copa del Rey title in 2003 and remains Los Bermellones' all-time goalscorer to date.

This preceded a successful period with Barca and the Nerazzurri which ultimately peaked with the forward’s successive treble-winning campaigns in 2008/09 and 09/10. He’d also won the Champions League in 2006 for the Catalan giants in their earlier period of dominance.

Eto’o’s ability to thrive in several styles, a measure of his tactical intelligence and versatility was showcased in the European runs in 2009 and 2010: while the frontman was largely Pep Guardiola’s number nine in a possession-based system, he moonlighted as a defensive winger in Inter’s backs-to-the-wall victory a year later under Jose Mourinho.

For Drogba, there was a different path.

Ivory Coast’s all-time scorer emerged somewhat late in his mid-20s and was already facing a race against time when he joined Chelsea in 2004 after a hugely prolific season in Ligue 1 with Olympique de Marseille.

He struggled to settle early doors at Stamford Bridge and threatened to leave the club several times given the unfriendly relationship he shared with the club’s supporters and English media. Years later, in 2012, the big-game superstar singlehandedly delivered the West London club’s first Champions League title.

In a sense, it was fitting for him to be the protagonist in that unexpected success in the early 2010s after his loss of discipline in 2008 cost his teammates against Manchester United in the Moscow rain.

While Drogba may not rival Fecafoot President Eto’o for longevity and titles, he more than made up for his deficiencies with an uncanny influence in big, tight games to be the difference for the Blues.

He netted nine cup final goals in as many games, notably FA Cup finals against Man United, Portsmouth and Liverpool while the most momentous strike came at the Allianz Arena against Bayern Munich in the 2012 CL decider.

In addition, he became the first African player to win the Premier League Golden Boot in 2007, and also the first from the continent to claim the accolade more than once after his 2009/10 success. At the time of his second, the Ivorian forward was the fifth player to reach the feat in the Premier League, although three more players have matched this including Egypt star Mohamed Salah.

104 top flight goals and 54 assists in 254 Prem games, a goal contribution in roughly two games, was certainly respectable if not hugely prolific.

That was Drogba the late bloomer. He may not have been as versatile as the legendary Cameroon striker, but what he did have was the fighting spirit and work ethic to achieve as much as he could in limited time.

He may not have been on the level of Eto’o but he certainly walked his own path and wrote a fascinating story that will live long in the hearts of fans at Stamford Bridge.