Every child has dreams. Places, loved ones and friendships are what make up their thoughts, hopes and expectations.
Andre Onana used to go with his older brother to matches. He carried his brother’s bag with his gloves, he’d sit pitchside and watch on as his sibling played between the sticks. He would also let his imagination roam as he dreamt of becoming a goalkeeper one day, but where? At the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde, Cameroon.
That was the target that Onana set himself. He would embark on the journey from home to the stadium by foot for national team games among raucous crowds. He would see his heroes, the Lions of Cameroon, the ones who captivated an entire nation in 2000 by winning the Africa Cup of Nations with a team made up of Rigobert Song, Patrick M’Boma, Geremi, Pierre Wome, Marc-Vivien Foe and Samuel Eto’o.
In fact, a certain Eto’o had a huge say in Onana’s fate as tournaments organised by the former striker’s academy gave Onana the chance to showcase his skills. A coach by the name of Diallo then helped him begin an incredible journey: “Come and join the Samuel Eto’o Academy! Come and play with us.”
That was the trigger that got the ball rolling at the age of ten. Four years later, Onana and his team-mates headed to Barcelona for an international tournament. It turned into a one-way trip because La Masia became Andre’s new home as he got to train with the best youngsters in Europe.
Onana embarked on another journey in January 2015, this time to Amsterdam. The biting cold, a new and challenging language and a completely different environment awaited him. It wasn’t easy to adapt and it wasn’t ideal to be third in the pecking order at 19 with seemingly limited prospects.
Showing commitment in training, not giving up, waiting for his chance, grabbing it with both hands and not letting it go were all pivotal to Onana’s progress. His moment came around when the Ajax coach selected him for three games in a row. After 18 months in Amsterdam, Andre knew that the trio of matches would determine his fate.
By that point, there was no replacing him as the Cameroonian became the first-choice goalkeeper at the age of 20, putting paid to all sorts of prejudices and misconceptions. He won three league titles, two Dutch Cups and one Super Cup. He featured in the Europa League and played a key role in the team’s extraordinary Champions League run in 2018/19 in which they were moments away from reaching the final.
There have been wonderful moments and particularly onerous ones, too, such as having to train on his own before returning to the action in between the sticks. The Africa Cup of Nations dream was extinguished in Yaounde in a penalty shoot-out at the semi-final stage. There have been ups and downs, but Onana has always had enough strength to pick himself back up, which is embodied by the fact that he shows no shortage of personality on and off the pitch.
The 26-year-old is now adding another stop on his journey. From the village of Nkol Ngok in Yaounde to Barcelona and Amsterdam, Onana is now in Milan. His connection with Eto’o is even stronger, as Andre is the fourth Cameroonian to play for Inter, following in the footsteps of compatriots Eto’o, Wome and Daniel Maa Boumsong. In terms of making history, the player is set to become the first ever African goalkeeper to get the nod for the Nerazzurri.
Welcome to Inter, Andre!