The Truth About André Onana
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A lot of people think they know what happened.
They think they know me.
They’ve seen the headlines.
“André Onana? Oh, he got banned for taking drugs, right?”
“He’s a cheat.”
“He’s an addict.”
Even after everything that came out — the statement from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the rest — it’s a stain on my name.
André Onana banned for doping ... how do you explain that s*** to your family? To your kids?
Well, it wasn’t easy. But listen, there is an explanation. So if you want to hear, take a seat.
This is the truth, for those who want to hear it.
In one week in February 2021, I lost everything.
I was in Cameroon with the national team and I got a call from the team doctor at Ajax.
When he told me I’d tested positive for furosemide, my reaction was, “How? Is this a joke?”
I told him, “Doc, for sure you’ve made a mistake. I know how these tests go. I’ve done many of them and there’s never been a problem.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. And I’ve never touched drugs. No way.
I’d never even heard of furosemide.
The only pills I’d ever put in my body were the ones the club or national team doctors prescribed.
What was this bulls***, now?
After I spoke with Ajax, I called my girlfriend, Melanie. I was actually laughing telling her about it. I was so sure this was just a mistake. Suddenly, she was like, “André, furosemide … that’s in the pregnancy medicine the doctors gave me.”
That’s when it hit me.
This wasn’t some admin error.
When I got back from Cameroon, the club doctor came with me to my house and went through everything I had in the cupboards to check. He confirmed it.
I must’ve gone for a headache pill and got the boxes mixed up. I took the pill the doctor had prescribed Melanie. The boxes were basically identical.
This little 40 mg pill.
I thought they would show me a yellow card. But nah, they went straight for the red.- André Onana
Man, I was in shock.
Still, UEFA could see it was just human error, you know? They investigated and I told them my story. The question they asked the most was, “Why do you have this medicine in your house?”
It was easy to answer: “Because of the little one. My partner is having a baby … These are her pills.”
This was definitely not some crazy excuse I just made up. I didn’t invent anything. I wasn’t trying to cheat. All the evidence was there.
This was just a stupid mistake.
After everything, I assumed they would be like, “O.K., these things happen. It’s a mistake. Be more careful next time.”
To put it in football terms, I thought they would show me a yellow card.
But nah, they went straight for the red.
Twelve months ban. No football.
Eredivisie? KNVB Cup? Europa League? Champions League? AFCON?
Gone. Just like that.
One year for a footballer? It’s like 10 years.
It’s an eternity.
In football, you know that you have such a limited period of time to achieve what you want. You have to work hard to make it. And trust me, I had worked hard to follow my dreams.
I had made sacrifices.
When I was 10, I left home to move four hours away in order to play at the Samuel Eto’o Academy. I went to live with one of the coaches — a guy named Diallo.
To this day, I have no idea how Diallo and the academy convinced my dad to let me go. Even though he had been a footballer himself back in the day, my dad was all about studying with me. School, school, school. Football wasn’t a secure path.
“What if you get injured? What if you don’t make it? No, no, no, no.”
Sometimes, I reckon Samuel Eto’o himself must have called my dad to convince him — haha!
It sounds crazy, right? Sending a kid across the country away from his family? But you have to understand, the way things work for kids in Europe is different from the way they work in Africa. My older brother had already gone to Jakarta to play football. We came from a poor family. We knew the deal. This was how you follow a dream that could potentially help your family.
If you seriously want to go to the top, the road is never gonna be straight.- André Onana
We played a lot of tournaments in France and Spain, and the ultimate goal was to secure a move to one of Europe’s top academies.
The funny thing was that while we all knew that this was the dream, nobody actually told me when I actually got signed for Barcelona.
The club, my coaches and my family sorted everything out, but they all kept it a secret from me for weeks!
I remember, I was on the phone to my brother talking about something else and I heard a voice in the background like, “Eh, don’t tell him….”
I was like, “Tell me what? Come on, now you have to tell me! We’re brothers….”
So he told me, but he swore me to secrecy. Still, I didn’t really believe him.
Then, when we went to play in Barcelona a couple of weeks later, the coach told me to pack everything I had. Everything. But he wouldn’t say why.
I was like “C’mon coach, I’m the captain of this team. You have to tell me what’s going on?!?”
He just shouted at me, “Eh, André just shut up and pack your luggage!”
He just kept it up for the whole trip, up until the moment we arrived in the city and the rest of my teammates went off to the hotel and they put me on a bus to Barcelona to sign — haha!
The next day, I’m playing against my old teammates in a Barcelona shirt. Stuff like that you can’t even process.
That was a massive change as a 14-year-old kid. Suddenly I was in this new country, with a new language, new people, new everything.
The culture shock really hit me when I signed pro terms at Ajax 4½ years later. I arrived in the Netherlands on January 3, 2015, and I will always remember the weather. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, but, man … it’s crazy cold!
Look, I’d been in Cameroon and then Barcelona all my life. In Cameroon, it never snows — it hardly ever drops below 20°C. In Barça, if it’s snowing, you stay home. So, the first time I saw snow in Amsterdam, I woke up, looked out the window … ffffffft, I closed the curtains and went back to bed. No way.
Like an hour later, I got a call from the club, “Where are you? You’re supposed to be at training!!”
I was like, “My friend, it’s snowing. How can I drive in this??”
They were like, “Yes, you can drive. Get down here now!”
In those early months at Ajax, I was thinking, Did I make a good move here? I left Barcelona for this?! I was only the third-choice goalie and I felt alone in the dressing room. I couldn’t speak any English or Dutch and there weren’t any French or Spanish speakers.
But I was training well and I had a lot of … character, let’s say. A bit of attitude. I was impatient to play. To prove I’d made the right move.
If you seriously want to go to the top, the road is never gonna be straight.
Before the 2016–17 season, I spoke to the new manager, Peter Bosz, and he told me I was too young. He said to me, “Look at all the top clubs around Europe and tell me which one has a 20-year-old keeper?”
After that, I was so unhappy that I tried to look for a club to take me on loan but no one was interested. I was looking in the French second division … but still no one wanted me! I had to stay.
But then a few months later, after Jasper Cillessen left, the coach finally told me, “O.K. You’ve got one month to impress me. For three games, you are my No. 1.”
This was my chance.
But I was so nervous, and in the end we lost the first game 2–1 to Willem II. The next day, I had to read the typical things in the press.
Still, I had two more games to impress. Right at the start of the next match against Go Ahead Eagles, Davinson Sánchez gave away a penalty.
I could see my chance slipping away. And I was furious at Sanchez.
I lost it. I just started hitting him — during the game!
“Why have you done that?! My friend, I’m never gonna get another chance. They are gonna kill me!!!!!”
But … I guessed right. I saved the penalty. And we won the game.
From those three games, I became the No. 1 for five seasons. I won trophies, I became one of the top goalies in Europe.
Then, in February 2021, it felt like everything I’d worked for had been taken away.
Melanie, my family and my teammates knew the truth … but the rest? Did they look past the headlines?
ANDRÉ ONANA BANNED FOR TAKING DRUGS.
Like some addict.
My Ajax teammates wore shirts with my name ahead of the PSV game to show their support, and I got many messages on social media from across the world of football.
I could be here all day listing the players and coaches who reached out to me. That’s a pretty good feeling. But still, I felt isolated.
The sanction meant I couldn’t go to matches, I couldn’t train with the team, I couldn’t attend the celebration for the title at the end of the season — even though I’d played 60% of the season — every match up until the ban!
How is that fair?!
It felt like everything I’d worked for had been taken away.- André Onana
I get it. The law is the law, right? You f*** up, you pay the price. And I paid.
But sometimes you wonder, are they punishing you to teach you a lesson, or are they doing it just to hurt you?
People around me changed. People who were laughing stopped laughing, they stopped smiling. Some people disappeared altogether. There were people I expected to reach out to me who didn’t. I learned from that. I started to see the world more clearly.
I went back to Spain, to Salou, to train alone on a programme Ajax set for me. I did double sessions every other day with a team of personal trainers — the best guys, really.
The thing that really stuck with me from that experience was when my trainers brought in goalies, amateurs from local teams, to train with me.
I’m watching these guys train with me and I’m like, Wow, where did they find these guys?! They’re amazing!
But for one reason or another, they’d just never made it. I listened to their stories and it was clear that sometimes talent isn’t enough. The gods of football choose who they choose.
That changed my perspective, too. I thought about my privilege and luck, despite everything.
In a way, I needed this year to get that focus back … listen, I’m not gonna get down on my knees and say thanks for the ban — f*** that — but it helped me to take a step back and see what’s really important. I trained like I’ve never trained before. Like a machine. Anyone who saw me then would not have thought, This is a guy who is suspended.
In the summer, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the ban from 12 months to nine, I celebrated like I’d won the Champions League! They even put a line in their report that said there was no “significant fault” on my part. That was something. They can’t take the stain away, but they cleaned it a little.
But more than that, the reduction was a big victory for me because after everything I’d gone through, it meant that I could play at the Africa Cup of Nations in January … in Cameroon.
That meant everything.
You see, my dad still talks about the 2000 AFCON final — when we beat Nigeria — like it was the pinnacle of all football. Nothing will ever top that moment for my family.
Growing up, I didn’t dream of playing at the Camp Nou or the Johan Cruyff Arena … nah, I wanted to play at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaoundé.
I used to walk there from home with my big brothers to watch the national team play. Some of my very first memories of football are of the way the stadium would be packed full three or four hours before the game — 42,000 people cheering, dancing and singing.
The fans acted like we’d won before we even kicked off!
We would sit way up high at the top of this stadium. I could barely even make out the players but that didn’t matter because I was just taking it all in.
Whenever I go back to play there, it’s a different experience from anywhere else. I really am going home. Every time I turn my head left or right, I spot someone in the crowd I know — haha!
Now I’m back playing again, my dreams are the same as when I was a little kid sitting way up high in the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo.
I want to represent my country.
I want to win AFCON and become a legend for eternity.
And, I want to become the best goalie in the world.
As I learned in Salou, good players don’t always make it, but the best — the very best players — always manage to show up in the biggest moments.
Why? Because no obstacle will stop them from being there.
Everyone takes hits.
What I learned this year more than anything is it’s not about that.
It’s about how you get up.