Andre Onana is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. This is his story from a Barcelona ban, to learning from mistakes and leading by example.
When it comes to the great pantheon of football behemoths, Barcelona sit at the pinnacle.
It’s an alluring club. Mystical. One that every kid fantasises about.
For Andre Onana all that was clear. He had spent half a decade with the Catalans, immersed in the La Masia culture and the cules spirit. But he had a choice to make. One that was not easy.
Should he go or should he stay?
To move was a recurrent theme in his life.
He made one at fourteen when he relocated across continents from Africa to Europe. Before that he made a choice to leave his family nest when he was even younger so that he could live at the Samuel Eto’o Foundation.
Barcelona didn’t make it easy for the young man.
‘Barca knew he was going to leave, so they were trying to do everything they could to keep him,’ Andreu Cases Mundet, Onana’s fellow teammate at Barcelona recalls to First Time Finish.
‘They made him practise with the first team a lot and all these things to convince him they valued him.’
But Onana was bold. Often goalkeepers at big clubs dither. Try to wait it out.
Even at 19 he was not afraid to make the next step and say goodbye to one of the biggest football institutions in the world.
Born to be a star
Born in Nkol Ngok on the outskirts of Yaounde in Cameroon’s capital city, Andre Onana came from humble beginnings.
He’d play on the streets as a kid and on dirt mottled pitches until he was spotted by the Samuel Eto’o Foundation as a young boy.
The opportunity was one Andre Onana or his parents could not resist. He moved 233 kilometres across the country at the age of 10 leaving his family behind.
In the academy, he would get the best preparation for a professional career. Thanks to Eto’o’s close links in Spain, Onana and his teammates would often travel on tours to Europe.
It wasn’t long before Barcelona spotted his talent.
At 14, he made the move to La Masia.
Andreu Cases Mundet was a fellow goalkeeper in the Catalans’ academy upon Onana’s arrival. He still remembers his former teammate well.
‘He’s a year older than me but since the beginning we’ve had a good relationship. I always looked up to him. As goalkeepers at Barcelona we practised almost everyday when we had training.’
Barcelona are renowned for their worldwide recruitment.
Cases Mundet didn’t bat an eye when Onana first arrived at the club in 2010. It wasn’t unusual for talented players to join the academy from different parts of the world.
What caught his eye was when Onana started to play. Cases Mundet almost immediately started to take notice.
‘Since the first day he got to Barca you could see that he was a beast,’ Cases Mundet recalls in awe.
It wasn’t long before the pair of them developed a strong relationship.
‘As goalkeepers there’s the team and then the goalkeepers have another team where you always look out for each other and have a closer relationship.’
Coming into a new environment like Barcelona the increase in competitive edge and the extra work-load can make or break players.
For Andre Onana it was the former. He thrived under the new pressure and the cumbersome weight on his shoulders.
‘Onana was just a joke in all honesty, he was too good. Physically and quality wise he was way superior than everyone else. It was easy to see,’ Cases Mundet remembers.
Being a goalkeeper is cut-throat. You’re fighting for just one spot in the team. Sometimes with three others.
Onana was someone who didn’t shy away from the challenge. He wrestled himself to first choice almost immediately.
‘He was very competitive. Andre was a really good guy, but when he was in competition mode he was ruthless. In those moods it was impossible to score against him. He was just so superior.’
As a goalkeeper you need that hunger and Andre’s determination would take him far, but it would come with set-backs.
Just a few years into his spell with the Catalans, Barcelona were found guilty in a FIFA investigation of wrongfully registering overseas U18 players.
Onana was among ten others, mainly from his native Cameroon who were banned from playing competitively until they turned 18 years of age.
‘When he was not able to play, that was very frustrating for him, because you see other players playing in your position, and they are having chances like practising with the first team.
‘But he did well. He was allowed to play some games with a local team and he kept practising with us. In the big picture I think he dealt with it very well.’
Many other talented players in La Masia’s list of banned stars had since fallen down the footballing ladder. But for Onana the experience helped him to become stronger.
‘From those players who were banned he was one of the ones who dealt with it better,’ Cases Mundet admits. ‘I feel like in his mindset he knew he was going to be a professional no matter what.’
And in order to do so Onana was willing to do anything.
‘Sometimes he practised in the morning with the U19s and then later in the afternoon he would practise with younger teams. He just wanted to train and get better.’
‘Maybe other players got discouraged from the ban, but Andre was able to use it as a motivation to keep working.’
On a precipice
Upon the expiration of Onana’s ban he transitioned back into the team with ease.
The Cameroonian excelled at U19 level. Cases Mundet recalls he dominated during the 2014/15 season.
But even though he was highly valued at the club and Barcelona did everything they could to convince him to stay, Andre was unsure about his path into the first team.
At 19 years of age not many goalkeepers play first team football, but for Onana he wanted to be at least pushing for a spot.
In the first team there were three goalkeepers blocking his path in Ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo and Jordy Masip.
Meanwhile in Barca B there were four keepers vying for a spot. The surplus of goalkeepers complicated Onana’s fate. Barcelona was not a team where he could tangibly challenge for the number one spot.
‘He saw that situation and decided to move on,’ Cases Mundet recalls.
Move on he did. Onana has always timed his moves to perfection. From the Eto’o Foundation to La Masia, his move to Amsterdam was probably the best of the lot.
The perfect match
At Ajax, Onana has developed into one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He is carrying the legacy of the Dutch giant’s rich history of world-class goalkeeping talent.
One of the best of all time, Edwin van der Sar, is closely guiding Onana’s career as the chief executive of the Amsterdam based club.
The transition from Barcelona to Ajax was an easy one. Over the years the two clubs have shared a strong bond, especially thanks to the indelible mark Johan Cruyff has left on both institutions’ ethos.
One of the core foundations of Cruyff’s principles was the ability of the goalkeeper to play with their feet.
It is a trait which has been ingrained in Andre Onana.
‘At Barca we often play positional games. So when the team is practising and they are doing positional games, the goalkeepers are always part of that, they force you to play with their feet,’ Cases Mundet explains.
‘Every time the coaches can involve goalkeepers in those exercises they always put them in as an extra player.’
‘Of course we know the culture too and that’s always on our minds. But the coaches always help us to get better with our feet. Even in the games, they tell us to play it out from the back. We can’t just kick the ball out.’
That ethos rubbed off on Onana. You would struggle to find a better goalkeeper in world football who is as nonchalant on the ball and effective as the Cameroonian.
An inspiring character
Onana’s rise is not one that surprises Cases Mundet or anyone who has closely studied his career.
What stands out about the Cameroonian is not just his talent but his character too.
‘He was a really funny guy off the pitch. He liked to talk and have fun, but when he had to be serious in the game he did that as well.
‘Andre took care of young players, especially the ones from Cameroon to help them to adapt.’
‘I’m sure if I reach out to him he would answer. Yeah he’s playing Champions League, but he still has his feet on the ground. He knows where he is and where he has come from.’
An incredible future
Most importantly for a goalkeeper, Andre Onana has always had the mettle to deal with mistakes and to lead by example at times of calamity.
‘I remember a pre-season game with the U19s, he made a mistake, a very obvious one. He missed a cross and they scored from it. But I remember him just keeping his head up, clapping and touching his teammates saying: Come on. Come on.
Usually if you make a mistake as a goalkeeper you would get quiet and not say anything, but he was totally the opposite. He was encouraging his teammates. I think that says a lot about him.’
Onana’s confidence and ability to move on from situations like that is exemplary.
Recently he owned up to a similar mistake against Liverpool in the Champions League demonstrating his courage and the ease with which he is able get up in the face of adversity.
Thankfully, mistakes are rare in his game.
More often it is Onana’s talent and acrobatic saves making the headlines.
At 24, Andre Onana easily has a decade left at the top of his game and he has undoubtedly yet to hit his peak. In goalkeeper terms the Cameroonian is still a youngster.
Despite this, he is already among the best goalkeepers in the world, and if he continues to improve there is no doubt he has the ability to become the outright best.
In the process of doing so, Onana is breaking down stereotypes too. By excelling on the pitch the Cameroonian is once and for all shattering bigoted notions about black goalkeepers being inferior. An issue Onana has been outspoken about ever since a 2019 interview with the BBC.
“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’s 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 goalkeeper.”Andre Onana via BBC
The racist prejudice is sadly still too prevalent in some of European football’s biggest institutions (and of course stretches far beyond the world of sport) but by speaking out Onana has become more than just an icon.
He is a trailblazer. A role model for others to follow. And a player with the potential and mindset to reach the stars.