There is something special about a goalkeeper’s mentality – how else could they handle the wild swings from adulation to vilification. Andre Onana has been on a rollercoaster ever since he graduated from Samuel Eto’o’s academy in Cameroon and moved to Barcelona aged 14.
He went on to make his name at Ajax under Manchester United goalkeeping legend Edwin van der Sar, lost a Europa League final against United while still just 19, and a Champions League semi-final in the last seconds against Spurs.
But nothing could prepare him for what happened this year when he was banned from football for nine months after mistaking one of his wife’s pills for a headache tablet.
Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana was banned for a positive drugs test but is back in action
He maintains that he took one of his wife’s pills by mistake, rather than a headache tablet
UEFA accepted that he had made an honest mistake but told him he still had to serve a punishment that ended up making him feel as if football had turned its back on him.
He is back on a high, playing once more, likely to lead Cameroon into the African Nations Cup on home soil, and expected to leave Ajax at the end of the season to join another big European side.
There were lots of lows during the ban. ‘It’s a stigma,’ he says as he points to his forehead and adds: ‘It sometimes feels like the words [drugs cheat] are stamped on here.
‘That week I tested positive I had done two or three tests because they had tested me in the league and the cup. But they don’t see it that way. You can have 17 negative tests before and it makes no difference.
‘It’s very simple what happened. I woke up with a headache and took a pill,’ he says of events back in October 2020. He thought he was taking Litacol, which the club had prescribed him. But instead he took Lasimac, prescribed to his wife to combat water retention. UEFA recognized that the tablets were very similar in appearance and that there was no intention to cheat but there still had to be consequences.
Onana is loving life playing football again both with Ajax and the Cameroon national side
‘I took the tablet without a second thought and when I was picked for the random tests and I was the first to run across and get it over with,’ he says. A 12 month ban reduced to nine months followed.
‘In the end the law says that you are responsible for everything that goes into you. If today I go into a shop and I buy a bottle of water and the water is contaminated, it’s my responsibility.’
Being out of action was tough especially when it made Onana feel like an outcast he couldn’t even celebrate Ajax winning the league with team-mates.
‘I had played 60 per cent of games and they didn’t even let me celebrate it.
‘When you are banned, you can’t do anything, you can’t even step foot on the (normal training) pitch. The first thing I did was put together a team of coaches but it’s not easy to find a qualified coach who is not working. You have to find your psychologist, your fitness coach, a physio and a nutritionist.’
And training alone can be tough even when there is next year’s Copa Africa to build towards.
The 24-year-old is Cameroon’s first choice keeper and has made 18 international appearances
‘You can’t even motivate yourself thinking about that,’ he says. ‘Because the normal thing is that you don’t get called up. Football turns its back on you. I was just trying to survive and come back physically better than ever.
‘I tried to always see the positive side but there are times when you can’t find it. As a goalkeeper it’s difficult. Now someone else is playing in your place. Only one can play in that position.’
And there is that label on the forehead that he mentioned earlier. He tells another story of how the repercussions of the ban went beyond football.
‘I was stopped by the police in Belgium. It was the normal thing: ‘How you doing? Can we see your documents?’ But when I showed my identity card, one of them recognized me and he said: “Mr Onana, get out of the car”. I get out of the car and they check the whole car! And I hear them say in French: “No this is a guy who takes drugs”.
‘I’m laughing about it now but the only reason I didn’t end up in a fight with them is that they were policemen!’
His focus throughout the ban was to come back stronger. He says the time out has given him the opportunity to look at videos, to train, to watch the sessions back, and to make corrections to his game. And he has worked hard physically too.
Onana worked ferociously hard during his ban to make sure he came back in top condition
Edwin van der Sar has been a massive influence on Onana as Ajax chief executive
When I came back to Ajax people said: “Look at this guy, it’s impossible that you have been suspended for nine months.”
He has already returned to action for Cameroon and for Ajax but his contract with the club runs out in the summer and he admits that staying is unlikely.
He will be leaving behind Van der Saar if he goes. The former United keeper is chief executive at Ajax and has had a huge influence on his career.
‘It’s impossible to have a better footballing godfather,’ Onana says. ‘Every time we lost, he would come to talk to me because he knows that losing is something that I can’t abide.
‘He would advise me a lot, we had a very good relationship, he was one of the best goalkeepers in the world in his time.
‘Once in a while he would come and train with us, especially when we were in preseason or when he had a veterans’ game coming up. When there’s a legends’ match, I would see him turn up with his gloves.’
He calmed Onana’s nerves too when in the 2016 Europa League final he was the 19-year-old tasked with keeping Manchester United at bay in Stockholm.
Onana’s stock remains high and he is likely to move to a top European club this summer
‘Six months earlier I had been the goalkeeper of the second team playing in front of 3,000 people.
‘Now the whole world was watching and I was 19. I got there and told the coach that I couldn’t play, that I didn’t feel right.’
Onana credits Edwin van der Sar for helping him shake him off the pre-match nerves. ‘Van der Sar gave an interview before the game in which he said: ‘Tell Andre that I haven’t brought gloves with me. So, he is going to have to play’.
‘So I wake up the morning of the game,’ says Onana, ‘and I see that headline and I can’t say anything: He has said “whether you’re feeling good or not, you’re playing!”
‘After that game I said to myself I am never again going to have fear in football again.’
In 2019 Ajax turned Real Madrid over in the last-16 of the Champions League despite trailing going into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.
‘I had been to see Manchester City play against Schalke in Germany before and I was talking to Pep Guardiola about the second leg. He laughed and told me: “Andre, you’re in the best position. You go there when you’re winning against Madrid and you don’t know whether to attack or defend. But you have lost the first leg and now you have the war of the second leg and you can only win. You’re already dead. So go there and give it all”.
Onana has been a key part of Ajax’s success and found it tough to watch on from afar
‘And that was the message I was telling the team. We can win or lose but whatever happens we will sleep like champions. And the first two shots are goals, not even in your wildest dreams did you think that.’
Ajax knocked out Real Madrid on route to the famous semi-final against Tottenham when Lucas Moura’s hat-trick put them out in injury time.
‘I still haven’t watched the game again,’ he says. ‘It’s painful. I couldn’t even tell you who scored in the final. I was on a flight to America because I didn’t want to know anything about it.
‘When we lost the semi-final, you could see people crying, everyone was crying, the ball boys, the staff, we get to the dressing room and you can’t talk, you get home and you can’t sleep, the next day you get to train, you have no desire at all to do anything.
‘If you lose 3-0 and they were the better side then fine. But to go out in the last second.’
It was another toughening-up experience for Onana. He has come a long way from the 18-year-old keeper who moved from Barcelona to Ajax.
‘It was unbelievably cold in Amsterdam,’ he laughs. ‘I had to go and buy snow boots.
Onana arrived at Ajax having come through the Barcelona academy after moving to Europe
‘And in Spain when it’s snowing everything and everyone stops. Here that’s not the case. It was snowing that first year and I opened the curtains and I thought I could have a lie-in.
‘Herman Pinkster (Ajax’ legendary player liason officer) called me asking where I was. “Get moving, they’re here, training,” he said. “Forget Barcelona, forget the sun, here you train”.’
At 25-years of age he’s very much a keeper for all seasons now. And after winning two cups and two leagues in the Netherlands he wants a new challenge.
Whoever puts their faith in him will get not just be getting a player with massive talent, they will also be signing someone with a huge desire to make up for lost time.
Onana is the latest player to join Juan Mata’s Common Goal scheme in which players agree to donate 1% of their wages to good causes.
He has pledged the money to blind orphans in Cameroon where he already has a foundation.
‘They reach 14 they have to leave the orphanage, with things the way the way are out there,’ he says.
‘It’s hard to imagine a kid who has no mum and dad, who is blind, and who is on the street. I wanted to join Common Goal to forget the things that have happened in these nine months.
‘I had a bad time of it this year but I know there are people who have it worse. I know I won’t be able to change the life of these kids but I can try to help them be a little happier.’