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André Onana: the Story of Manchester United’s first African Goalkeeper
Banned by FIFA, dropped by Cameroon’s World Cup squad, and becoming a UEFA Champions League finalist, the Cameroonian’s foray into top-flight football has been marked by highs and lows.
Goalkeeper Andre Onana recently joined Premier League heavyweights Manchester United from Inter Milan.
The Red Devils paid £47.2 million for the services of the Cameroonian, making him one of the most expensive keepers. Before this, he had been snubbed by the Indomitable Lions but went to reach the final of the UEFA Champions League and win two domestic Cups in Italy.
“This is the start of a new journey for me, with new team-mates and new ambitions to fight for… and I will now give everything to create my own legacy in the coming years,” Onana said after completing the deal.
The 27-year-old shot-stopper signed a five-year deal with Manchester United, with an option to extend by 12 months once it expires. It was a massive reward for the player who has endured many heartbreaking challenges to reach the top.
Who is André Onana?
The custodian was born in Nkol Ngok, a village in central Cameroon, a tiny setting with a population of barely 500 people. His love for football was discovered at an early age and he joined the Samuel Eto’o Academy before leaving for Barcelona in 2010 when he was just 14 years old.
However, he couldn’t join the famous La Masia Academy since he was still a minor and a non-European Union citizen. It prompted the Spanish outfit to loan him to Cornella and later on Vista Alegre, to continue his development.
Dutch junior outfit, Jong Ajax, then secured the services of Onana in 2015 and played in the Eerste Divisie for a season before joining the senior team where he featured until 2022.
The unfortunate FIFA ban
Onana failed a doping test in October 2020 that came as a “result of human mistake,” as he put it. The goalkeeper had tested positive for furosemide, a banned substance usually used as a masking agent to hide the presence of other drugs.
Onana claims he had mistakenly taken Lasimac, a Furosemide-based diuretic, instead of Litacold. The former was meant for his wife who had given birth. “Then we understood,” Ajax’s Chief Executive Edwin van der Sar stated, “It is incredible: 40mg can destroy a career.” Onana was banned from football for one year.
His initial one-year ban could have locked him out of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations but after the second ruling, the custodian went on to help the Indomitable Lions finish third in the biennial competition, although his rustiness was evident.
Chased from his maiden World Cup
After coming out of that “difficult year,” and playing in the 2021 AFCON, the next stop for Onana was the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Being Cameroon’s first-choice keeper, it was obvious the former Ajax player will be an obvious choice between the sticks.
Onana is known for being involved during play, and helps in the build-up from the back. It is a trait that did not go down well with Cameroon coach Rigobert Song. The Indomitable Lions legend wanted Onana to stick to his traditional role after “taking too many risks,” in Cameroon’s opening game against Switzerland, the match the African team lost by a solitary goal.
Onana was not ready to follow the gaffer’s instructions since he felt they were limiting, and he was dismissed from the team and sent home.
“If you can’t fit in with what’s required to be part of a squad then I do think that you need to step up to the plate and accept responsibility for that because the team, the squad, is more important than the interests of any individual,” Song was quoted saying.
After that incident, Onana, who by then was playing for Inter Milan, opted to retire from the national team.
“I have put all my efforts and energy into finding solutions to a situation that a footballer often experiences, but there has been no will on the other side. Some moments are difficult to assimilate,” Onana justified his decision.
The Indomitable Lions went on to crash out of the prestigious global competition in the group stage.
Onana bounces back in Italy
In the concluded 2022/23 UEFA Champions League campaign, the Cameroonian kept 13 clean sheets – the most in the annual competition in that season, as Inter Milan reached the final before narrowly losing to English champions Manchester City.
In the Serie A, Onana kept eight clean sheets in the 24 matches he played to help his team finish third. In general, Onana has avoided conceding in 104 out of the 255 competitive club games he has played to date.
Andre Onana of Cameroon during the Group G - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match between Switzerland and Cameroon.Photo by Pablo Morano/BSR Agency /Getty Images.
What has Onana achieved so far?
At just 27 years, Manchester United have one of the most ambitious and determined players who has tasted the sweetness and bitterness of the game of football.
During an interview with the BBC, Onana conceded it is not easy for a Black keeper to get to the top.
“I don't see the difference between white and Black goalkeepers, they're the same — they make mistakes. I make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. Black keepers need to prepare well because it's not easy for us,” Onana said.
“We don't have a lot of Black goalkeepers at the top and people already have in their mind that Black goalkeepers are not confident or they make too many mistakes. It is something we have to change. It's not easy for us to arrive at that level especially when you are Black but for me it really doesn't matter — Black or white, in the end I am a goalkeeper.”
There are a few Black keepers in top clubs owing to the notion that they are unreliable because they are less equipped, especially during the development process, as opposed to the white ones abroad.
Usually, scouts prioritize Africans in other departments but rarely do they give African keepers a chance. Onana’s determination explains his success. While playing for Ajax, Onana won the Eredivisie three times. He also managed to win two KNVB Cups and a Johan Cruyff Shield. The custodian was part of the team that reached the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League final but lost to his new team Manchester United.
Individual accolades include winning the 2018 Cameroonian Player of the Year, making the Eredivisie Team of the Year in the 2018/19 season, and forming the 2019 Caf Team of the Year.
What challenges await Onana at Manchester United?
His predecessor at the Red Devils, David de Gea, struggled to distribute the ball from the back. On several occasions, he was either caught in possession, made a poor pass or made a mistake that resulted in his team conceding. It doesn’t mean De Gea is a bad goalkeeper; as a matter of fact, he won the 2022/23 Premier League’s Golden Glove.
Erik Ten Hag is a fan of slick football that involves every player on the pitch. While Cameroon coach Song does not like it, Ten Hag loves the modern school of goalkeeping which explains why he made no effort in keeping De Gea.
Onana is comfortable with the ball at his feet and as seen in the Champions League final against the Citizens, he can play both the long and short passes accurately, something that was not De Gea’s forte.
The Cameroonian will be required to save the shots, something his predecessor was good at, and get used to the physicality of English football especially when it comes to aerial duels.
The Red Devils are also under pressure to deliver the Premier League title which they last won in the 2012/13 edition. The team has also struggled to challenge for other domestic Cups like the FA. The new keeper will be the backbone of Ten Hag’s style of play.
The Footprint of African goalkeepers in the Premier League
Apart from Senegal international Mendy, and Onana, a couple of goalkeepers from Africa have had an opportunity to experience English football.
Carl Ikeme was part of Wolverhampton Wanderers from 2003-2018 but struggled for regular game time owing to stiff competition. The former Nigeria international spent most of his time on loan.
Ex-Ghana international Richard Kingston is another Black keeper who had his chance with the likes of Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, and Blackpool.
Celebrated former Bafana Bafana goalkeeper, Andre Arendse, is another African who enjoyed English football when he turned out for Fulham, and later on Oxford United, before going back home.
Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar, Zimbabwean, was the first African goalkeeper to win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from the Reds, he also played for Southampton.
After Edouard Mendy’s exit from Chelsea to Saudi outfit Al-Ahli, Onana is now the only African goalkeeper in the English Premier League.
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