Cameroonian keeping the faith at Ajax
African keepers are a rare commodity in the European game and even more so in the Champions League. But if Ajax are to make an impact on their return to the group phase of the competition then Cameroon’s Andre Onana could be key.
The Dutch club’s decision to turn down an approach from Marseille came as a huge relief to their supporters as Onana is a cult hero in the Amsterdam Arena; not only for his performances but also his sprints across the pitch to join in goal celebrations, his antics in the box and an easy charm off the field with the fans.
Even though the 22-year-old is not first choice for his country and has turned down recent call-ups, he is bearing a bright torch for his continent.
“My fighting mentality has really grown,” says Onana. “When the season started it was different, but now I’m stronger, especially in my head. Now I want to win everything.”
Onana has proved to be good business for Ajax, who paid Barcelona a paltry € 250,000 for his services in 2015, asserting himself to be a capable successor to Jasper Cillessen, who moved in the opposite direction.
The keeper then further endeared himself to his new club by turning down a call-up to play for Cameroon at the African Nations Cup in Gabon in 2017, putting club above country and risking his future with the Indomitable Lions.
That decision cost him a gold medal, but surprisingly it did his future international prospects no harm as he returned to the Cameroon squad as understudy to his cousin Francis Ondoa for the Confederations Cup in Russia last year and now has four caps.
Ondoa and Onana were both at the Samuel Eto’o Academy in Douala and shared a room for five years before both headed for Barcelona.
“It was fantastic but I spoke no Spanish and I was very young. I cried in the beginning but I got stronger,” admits Onana, who was 14 when he moved to Europe. “As a keeper, it’s important to be calm and that I am. But in my personal life I’m a joker. I can’t sit with people who don’t know how to laugh.”
From Nkol Ngok, near Yaounde, he continues: “In my neighbourhood, nobody wanted to be a keeper. Everyone wanted to score.
“The coach said I must take a turn in the goal and I moved quicker to do it than I had intended because everyone else was reluctant. That’s how it started.”
Marseille’s interest in Onana has been long term, with technical director and former Spain keeper Andoni Zubizarretta a big admirer.
However, with an eye on restoring lost lustre when they compete in this season’s Champions League, Zubizarretta’s opposite number at Ajax, Marc Overmars, says they will not sell the African keeper “not even for pots of gold”.
“It was fantastic but I spoke no Spanish and I was very young. I cried in the beginning but I got stronger” On moving to Europe at 14