After two seasons at Turkish side Gençlerbirliği, Cameroon midfielder Geremi Sorele Njitap Fotso was surprised to find himself at the Santiago Bernabeu sharing the dressing room with Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Redondo, Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf, et al.
Geremi came two seasons after fellow Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o joined Real Madrid but the latter only managed three league appearances in three years and spent the next four years on loan and sold off to Real Mallorca in 2004. Geremi was keen to write a better script.
Uniting the Galacticos
Geremi’s ability to play in different positions at times cost him. But while other players sulk and rant at being denied playing time, Geremi chose peace, lauding and boosting the morale of the very players with who he contended places for.
In a podcast in April, Geremi said every player wants to start and “if you do not, you are frustrated and that can affect the entire team.”
But even if he was not played, “we kept smiling.” If Michel Salgado played, I just motivated him that ‘give it your all and when you’re tired, I’m there for you’”
A 21-year-old African wouldn’t just walk into the first XI of a squad that was soon to have Luis Figo and Zidane Zidane. Having started his career at his hometown club Racing Bafoussam, playing for Real Madrid was not even in his wildest dreams.
“[Manager Vicente] del Bosque trusted me, he knew my potential. He was like my father and he was honest with me. Before a match he would tell me ‘Geremi I’m going to play you in this position’ and I wouldn’t complain because he was my manager,” he said.
And whenever Geremi got the chance to play, he adds, he would give it his best to inspire more playing time, aware that another player will replace him in the next game. “That’s the spirit that helps you survive in a big team.”
Such attitude is why Del Bosque publicly insisted that Geremi and Steve McManaman were the most important members of his star-studded team.
Geremi played 76 matches for Real, but his first Clasico start in the epic 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp in October 1999 was special.
“It was Raul and I who played that match,” Geremi said in the podcast about the match in which Real were struggling: Roberto Carlos and skipper Fernando Hierro were out, Seedorf on the bench.
“I was young, playing one of the biggest matches in the world but I wasn’t giving it much attention, I wasn’t under pressure, I just wanted to play well…”
Geremi played a key role in midfield. Raúl scored a brace to answer Rivaldo’s and Figo’s strikes.
Premier League switch
Despite helping Cameroon defend the Afcon trophy in 2002, Geremi was loaned to Middlesbrough in the English Premier League.
The move followed Real’s fall Champions League semis. President Florentino Perez, obsessed with success in his overambitious Galactico project, sacked Del Bosque, which partly influenced Geremi’s exit from the Bernabeu.
Manager Steve McClaren was delighted to have finally signed the player he first wanted the previous summer.
McClaren, in his first tenure as manager, having deputised Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United between 1999 and 2001, described Geremi as a quality player who can play anywhere in midfield.
“We’ve got him from the best team in Europe and, at 23, he’s the right age too. I’m very pleased.”
Geremi mustered 33 league appearances and seven goals in just one season. He also accentuated his set-piece mastery, scoring a beautiful freekick against Liverpool and another against future Chelsea teammate Carlo Cudicini.
His move to Teesside surprised many because even Chelsea were interested in him. After the aforementioned performance, Blues coach Claudio Ranieri got his man.
His Champions League experience was badly needed at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea prepared for their first season in the competition since 2000. Geremi was also hungry for European football.
After signing a five-year deal, Geremi said: “This is very important for me because it’s one of my ambitions to play in European competitions... For a player the Champions League is like a World Cup for teams; you only remember the goal you score in the Champions League. It was against Bayern Munich in the semi-final 18 months ago.”
The 11th-minute opener in the 2-1 first leg loss would become the decisive away goal that sent Real to the final 3-2 on aggregate. In the final, Real beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1, with Geremi becoming the first African player to win two Champions League titles.
His arrival at Chelsea coincided with a revamp as Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich signed stars who won Chelsea back-to-back league titles.
Geremi’s 115 appearances in all competitions in four years may not articulate his importance at Chelsea but manager Jose Mourinho, who played him just 28 times in two league seasons, described him as “a low-profile player who is ready to fight for the team, ready to do the job I want him to do.”
The last of Geremi’s four goals for Chelsea, a scorching long-range free-kick against West Ham was his typical set-piece mastery.
Geremi got two more near chances to win the Champions League but Chelsea lost both semifinals. In the last one in 2007, the Cameroonian, who was an extra-time substitute, had his penalty saved by Pepe Reina as Liverpool won 4-1.
The next summer he joined Newcastle, relegated in 2009, and returned to Turkey for Ankaragücü in 2010 after helping the Magpies back to the Premier League.
Underrated as he was, Geremi won almost every trophy he played for, except of course, the World Cup.
Born. December 20, 1978
POB. Bafoussam, Cameroon
Positions. Midfielder, right back
Olympic Gold Medal: 2000
Africa Cup of Nations: 2000, 2002
Cameroonian Premier League: 1995
Cameroonian Cup: 1996
Uefa Champions League: 2000, 2002
La Liga: 2000-2001
Premier League: 2004-05, 2005-06