By Samuel Eto’o*
Growing up in the disadvantaged districts of Douala, Cameroon, I learnt to count on my mates to navigate the rugged streets where we played football. Among these friends, I found comradeship and compassion. Among the adults, however, I found guidance, mentorship, support and sometimes some spanking for disobedience. The circumstances of my upbringing give real meaning to the adage “it takes a village.”
This learning made me resilient to challenges, a quality that was invaluable when I arrived to play football in Europe as a lad of 16. In my luggage, I had a dream, a passion, but I also brought with me dribbling skills and the pace to pounce and score – an essential urge for a striker. Those footballing skills learnt in the bumpy surfaces I was used to practice, propelled me fast in the even grounds of Europe and have taken me to top leagues in Spain, Italy, Russia, England and Turkey.
But I almost never made it. As a young boy, I suffered from countless bouts of malaria that could very easily have killed me. It was just that I was one of the lucky ones, as the disease has killed millions of children in my country and across Africa. Additionally, I also came to age in the 90s – those days when AIDs seemed unstoppable. I saw people in my country succumb to the epidemic, and communities waver under the weight of the disease.
I very easily could have been one of those people taken by these diseases in my community. I have learnt to count my blessings and ask how I can give back – how I can play part in fighting these diseases and others. Of course I am a footballer, not a doctor or a public health specialist. But I hope to contribute by joining others to play and to win against these diseases. I am enlisting myself to the battle by working as a champion for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The world has made progress against these diseases over the last decade. We may have bent the curve of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria yet far too many people continue to die from these diseases. These men, women and children present far too many dreams that will never be realized. It is why we must press on.
I hope to contribute my bit by sharing the story of my life, but more importantly the story of people affected by these diseases. The stories are many and diverse. They are stories of girls who have lived on to become doctors and teachers and farmers, who are building their communities. Stories of boys, like me, who survived these diseases and lived on to play football, basketball and other sports at an international level and have returned to make a difference in their communities and beyond. These men and women have not only conquered disease, they are also agents of change in our countries.
I hope that with these stories, we can galvanize the world to embrace our differences and our diverse strengths, and to press on with the fight against these diseases with a goal of ending them. I have confidence that with determination and working with the Global Fund partnership we can write the last chapter of these diseases.
Courage and determination are essential qualities in football, and in the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria. One of my most memorable moments in football was the African Cup of Nations final between Nigeria and my country, Cameroon. I was a teenager then, but I scored the first goal and created the second. We went on to win that great final through penalties. I have known other exceptional moments in my career.
In all I have done in football, playing for my national team made me most proud. Right from the 1998 world cup, where, at 17, I represented my country as the youngest player in the tournament. Being called to national duty, being part of the “Indomitable Lions”, was always a big honour. A chance to give back to the people who made me. Cameroon is my blood, every time I wore the jersey of my national team, it was a unique opportunity for me and a great pride.
I hope to use the experience I have gained in football to give back to my country and to Africa by supporting the Global Fund partnership, which has contributed to saving more than 17 million lives, in my country and across the world. Football is a powerful tool, a language that permeates borders. It is a language we can use to fight infectious diseases, which also know no borders. Defeating these diseases will need everyone to play together. That is why I am joining global health. I want to play a prominent role in this urgent mission. I see helping save lives as the biggest fight of my life.