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'Football was being taken away from me' - How Ajax ace Onana fought to save his career after doping ban

19:00 EAT 14/12/2021
Andre Onana Common Goal
In an exclusive interview with GOAL, the Cameroon No.1 reveals how deeply he was affected by his nine-month suspension, and how he got through it

Sometimes, seemingly insignificant decisions can change the course of a person's life.

Having got ill in October last year, Andre Onana looked in his cabinet to find something to ease his discomfort.

In his haste, he took his wife's Lasimac medication by mistake. This tiny action would threaten his career and drag his name through the mud.

UEFA suspended the Ajax goalkeeper despite accepting that he had taken the banned substance Furosemide by accident. Initially, he was given a 12-month ban, but it was reduced to nine on appeal.

That was of little consolation to Onana, who was left devastated by being ostracised from the game he loves.

"I am a human being who was away from my friends, family and football. This time in my life has been dark and tough," Onana admits in an exclusive interview with GOAL.

"I want to say, with these things, the young guys need to be careful as it can happen to anyone. They need to pay attention because sh*t happens in life.

"When it happened, I thought, 'How am I going to explain to my parents that I have been banned for drugs when I never even smoke or drink alcohol?' I’ve not even had a taste of shisha.

"For my parents, it was hard. People who know me were asking 'How is it possible that this guy we know to be professional has been done for drugs?'

"It was a mistake and UEFA even recognised that fact, but it didn’t help me. I had already received my punishment."

Before the ban, the 25-year-old had already won every possible domestic honour at Netherlands' biggest club, Ajax and played in a Champions League semi-final and the Europa League final.

His fine form made him the subject of incessant transfer talk and he remains a man in demand.

That's because Onana had no intention of letting his suspension derail his career, undertaking a personally designed training program in Salou, close to former club Barcelona.

"I was not allowed to do so many things," he explains. "I couldn’t go to any stadium, I had to book everything for myself, I wasn’t allowed to train with any coach of Ajax, I wasn’t allowed to work with any professional coaching lessons.

"I was banned for nine months from all that. Somehow, in the beginning, for a second, it felt like football was being taken from me as I wasn’t allowed to do anything at all.

"It was like 'Wow! This is tough.' So, we figured out some things. I went to Spain with a private goalkeeping coach, my physios and my mental coach.

"I had seven people working for me. These guys helped me so much and nine months felt like five. I didn’t expect to play for Ajax so soon but they played me in the Champions League (last month).

"It was a nice atmosphere away at Besiktas. I was like, 'Sh*t, I am back at it again!' But thank God everything went well.

"I am back in business. I am back with the same mindset to become the best goalkeeper in the world."

That ambition is not unrealistic, with Onana making the Ballon d'Or shortlist in 2019.

Having also seen Chelsea No.1 Edouard Mendy nominated for the Lev Yashin prize at the illustrious France Football awards this year, he believes it won't be long before an African is recognised as the best shot-stopper in the world.

"A black goalkeeper will win it," he continued. "It doesn’t matter whether it is today, tomorrow, or after tomorrow. One day, it will happen.

"Mendy almost did and had an amazing season. He didn’t win this time but I hope he will next time.

"I was the first one to be there, so I want to fight to win it. It is a good challenge for all of us because when I see this generation there’s loads of good young goalies.

"One of us will be there, maybe (Gigi) Donnarumma will win again but we have to battle until the end."

Sitting alongside his ambitions in football are Onana's off-field interests.

He maintains strong ties to Cameroon through the Andre Onana Foundation, which helps blind children.

To further help the cause, he has signed up with Common Goal, a movement which encourages footballers to pledge at least one percent of their salaries to a charitable fund.

"It was nice for me growing up in Cameroon," he says. "But I know the reality that Cameroon is a poor country and it isn’t easy for a lot of people. Helping people and making them smile is the best thing in life.

"There are children who are blind and without parents, so it is difficult for these people to follow their dreams. Signing up to this program is a way of ending a tough year and looking forward to a better one."

As for his immediate goals, Onana is now free to represent his country at the African Cup of Nations, which kicks off in Yaounde on January 9.

"Cameroon have everything to win and we are not afraid of anyone," he declares. "We are ready to give everything to make the country proud."

One imagines, though, that Cameroonians will always be immensely proud of Andre Onana.