I have a dream of winning a Champions League, World Cup final, becoming the best goalkeeper in the world too. I have the opportunity and the chance to play against these great goalies. They are there ! They are not far away. I am still working and I hope to reach their level and maybe even exceed them. Read Indomitable lions and AJAX FC Goalkeeper Andre Onana’s interview on Onze Modial
How was your childhood in Cameroon?
It’s true that I left very young. I left the family home at 11 years old to join the Samuel Eto’o Foundation. I spent three-four seasons there. Afterwards, I flew to Barcelona.
Do you come from a poor or rather an affluent family?
I would say a poor, modest family. My dad was an agent for SNEC, the company that deals with waters in Cameroon. I can’t say we were rich, it was sometimes difficult to make ends meet, but thank God, we were getting there.
As a child, did you already dream of Europe?
Yes, like all young people of my generation. At that time, we were watching Olympique de Marseille with Mamadou Niang, a Senegalese who played there. We were all watching. It was a dream for us to go to Europe, to play there, to join a training center and if possible a professional team.
How did you end up at the Samuel Eto’o Academy?
In fact, the Foundation organized tournaments in each province. And in mine, I was voted best goalkeeper of the tournament that year. I remember that after a match, coach Diallo came to me and said, “I would really like you to join the Samuel Eto’o Foundation. “And for us it was … wow! You know, at that time, I played without ulterior motives, without ambition. It was just a dream. At that time, the Foundation was the best training center in Cameroon, and for me, integrating this house was something great.
How much did Samuel Eto’o play in your success?
He helped make me who I am today. It has been important for my career. It’s not easy to leave Cameroon for Barça. It’s not something we do every day. Samuel was the bridge, the one that allowed me to dream. Leaving the Foundation for FC Barcelona was difficult. Especially when I look at where I come from, the living conditions … I think this gentleman has been really precious for my career.
How did you choose to become a goalkeeper?
It comes from my big brother. He played as a goalkeeper when he was younger. I was smaller, I wore his bag, I wore his gloves, I accompanied him to see games. This is how I liked this post.
Weren’t you too disoriented when you arrived in Spain?
Yes, it was full of new things at the same time. When I arrive at Masia, I arrive in a country where I hardly know anyone, with a new language, a new culture. I’m late (smile). It takes time to adjust and it’s hot. Spanish people have their culture, which I respect, so it’s up to me to take the first step. I remember Jordi (Vinyals) saying to me: “Quieres comer, no quieres comer? “,” Do you want to eat or you don’t want to eat? “, And I replied:” Yes, yes! “,” Yes, yes “, even when I didn’t want to eat, I always said” yes “(laughs). It was hot, but it was the story of my life. I received an education there, I am very happy to have gone to Barça. I have very very very beautiful memories of FC Barcelona and I used to say that it is a club with which I am always in contact. As they tell me all the time: the door stays open (smile). And when I go back there, I’m comfortable, I’m at home, I laugh with everyone and it’s really good.
Did you feel a difference in level when you arrived?
Logically, this is FC Barcelona. You find yourself playing with kids your age but who are more advanced in terms of football because they have had better coaches, better conditions and it’s really up to you
adapt, learn and move on.
You feel a lot of nostalgia and emotion when you talk about Barça …
It’s normal that there are these emotions, I had a great time in Barcelona. I remember when I went there the last time, two years ago. I go to the first team locker room and Leo (Messi) sees me: “André, cómo estás? “. You see, these are things that mark me. You enter the locker room of FC Barcelona and you have Leo who calls you by your first name. It proves that they have not forgotten me. It’s true, I’ve been with them and today I’m playing against some. When I played Valencia last week in the Champions League, I was up against a few guys with whom I was in Barcelona. We talk again about our passages in Barcelona, it’s very beautiful.
Going from Barça to Ajax, did it make sense to you?
In terms of philosophy, yes. It was very complicated for me to leave. But I had to leave because I had to grow as a person and as a player. Staying in Barcelona was no longer possible. I remember, Andoni Zubizaretta was the sports director. I had a very good relationship with him and I was the most valued guardian of the training center. But there was no room for me because they brought in 22-year-old Marc-André Ter Stegen. Claudio Bravo also arrived the same year. So it was important for me to join a first team and to dream: to dream of having a chance one day, to be in a professional team and to learn. There can be injuries, you never know. But for me, it was important to be in a pro team, a pro locker room, to be a third goalkeeper and to learn from the biggest.
Have you had any moments of doubt at Ajax?
Yes ! I arrived in Amsterdam in January. And until June, it was hot for me. The adaptation first of all, I did not speak English and even less Dutch. The environment was new. I really doubted and wanted to leave. (He cuts) Well, this one is good: I wanted to leave Ajax in my second year. When I arrive in Amsterdam, I arrive as number 3. The following season, I am passed number 2. And the third goalkeeper, Boer, did not accept the fact that I pass in number 2. He couldn’t accept that I say to myself “Wow. “He will speak with the coach, immediately, the coach comes back to me and says to me:” André, you are young to be number 2, you are going to stay number 3 “. I got it wrong! I told the coach that I didn’t want to stay, that I couldn’t accept this. I said, “Coach, you put me number 2. I deserved that, I worked hard to become it! “. He said, “How many number 2 are you your age in big clubs? There is none … “. I was 19 years old. I couldn’t stay. So I called a club in France, a second division club: Valenciennes. I chat with them and they tell me: “André, sorry, we signed a guard yesterday at 3:00 pm …” That’s how I stayed at Ajax, because I had no way out , no club capable of betting on me. And then, I was very lucky, because the same year, Cillessen goes to Barça and the same coach calls me in the locker room and says to me: “I will give you three games before buying a new goalkeeper number 1. I give you three games and then I will see ». This is how it started.
What is Ajax’s DNA?
It is similar to that of Barcelona. It comes from Johan Cruyff. He’s a legendary character in the club. He did a lot for this club and today he is someone who is really respected in the Netherlands, known all over the world. And the philosophy is the same as that of Barcelona: keep possession as long as possible and have fun. Ajax is a club that targets young people, few clubs in Europe. The idea is really to have fun. Last year, we started the season without ambition and our coach told us all the time to have fun, that if we had fun, victory would be offered to us. The most important thing for us was to be well the day before and the day of the match, to be well prepared. We only thought of that.
How do you define yourself as a caretaker?
I define myself as a complete and modern caretaker. A modern goalkeeper is the one who transmits security, who is good in a one-on-one, who is impressive in the air and who plays well on the feet. This is a modern guardian. He is also able to play advanced. When you play in a team that has 90% possession, there is too much space between the goalkeeper and the defense. So it’s important to have a goalkeeper who can move forward and who can handle these kinds of situations. Me, I try to adapt to any situation: if I have to go out, if I have to stay … For me, that’s the definition of a modern goalkeeper.
How different is the goalkeeper position?
It’s a special job. We are isolated all the time in our world. If we look at the past fifteen years, this is the position that has changed the most. Football is improving day by day, but I think about this post which has taken a real step forward. Today, a team is left with eleven outfield players. The goalkeeper is counted as a field player. It is a key position, with responsibilities and very complicated. You really have to be tough to handle this pressure.
Isn’t it annoying to be regularly singled out after a mistake?
This is our life! This is the life of a goalkeeper, it is our reality. You have to be able to accept that. For me, the most important thing is not the error, but what comes after the error. We all want to win. But the irony is that we learn more when we lose. When I play, I don’t look at what is going well and what I have done well, but rather what I have done wrong. The victory hides a lot: I can make a bad match but with the victory at the end, in this case, everyone is happy and nobody speaks. But when we lose, everyone is alarmed! “What’s wrong here?” … So for me, what I do wrong allows me to improve as a person and as a goalkeeper. This is most important to me.
If you were to talk about André Onana, how would you define him?
He’s a clown André (laughs)! He’s a 23 year old kid who is all the time
joking with his friends, who is quiet at home. He’s a normal 23 year old boy who has a family life. He’s a normal person actually, I don’t know what to say about myself (laughs).
As an African player, do you feel like an ambassador for the continent?
Especially me ! Compared to my position, being a “black”, “African” guard. At this level, it is not an easy thing. I take the trouble to look in the biggest clubs, there is none like me. And for me, it is also important to do the right thing to be an inspiration for my young brothers who have the same ambitions as me and who hope to play at this level, or even more. It’s a good thing, even if there is extra pressure on me. For them, I am the voice of the voiceless. It’s something good.
How do you explain that De Ligt or De Jong went to big clubs, but not Ziyech or Onana? Is it harder for African players?
It’s a reality, we live it every day, every weekend. In this position, it’s easy. Let’s open the page and close the page by looking at the guardian market. It is super closed. I’m good at Ajax, I’m waiting for what will come at the end of the season. If I have to leave, I will leave. Otherwise I will stay. But I think that playing for an African selection is not the same as when you play for a prestigious team like France, Spain, Germany … It does not mean that we are not patriots, that we don’t like our countries, that’s not what I say. These selections have more impact and are more valued. It’s normal, these nations are more advanced than we are.
Do you find it normal that a French or Spanish goalkeeper gets more than you do when you are better?
Life is like that, there are things that do not depend on you. And this one is one of them. Everyone negotiates their contract. You can make a better deal, that’s your problem. Already, at the base, we are undercut. We all know that and it is not something that will change overnight. It’s up to us to do it right and try to represent our country well, to win the best competitions. I think that from there, we can give better visibility to our countries.
Have you ever been a victim of racism and what do you think of this phenomenon?
I live this constantly. Being a goalkeeper when you play outside is complicated. You have the “wou wou wou” that you suffer all the time. I remember a match against Utrecht, they threw grenades at me. I honestly don’t know what racism is. Call me a monkey? Tell me I’m black? But I’m black and I’m proud to be black. Having 30,000 snowmen behind, making fun of me and doing “wou wou wou”, I don’t care. I am here for my match and afterwards I get out. Afterwards, sometimes it’s an exaggeration. But as I said before, there are things that don’t depend on you. What you think about me, I can’t do anything about it. It’s something you can’t control. I don’t think it’s us the problem, it’s them the problem. But if you consider that we are not the same, bah it is you who have a problem (he claps his hands)! You’re the problem!
How to fight it? Leaving the field?
No … Football must be above that. Why leave the field? It’s not necessary. I think you shouldn’t give that much attention and stay professional. After the games, you go home, you take advantage of your family, your friends, your entourage. It is the most important. Racism is not going to change. Whether I say it today or the FIFA president asks to stop it, that is not going to change! This is something that will not change, so I don’t see why we should give that much importance.
Do you still have dreams?
Yes like everybody ! I have a dream of winning a Champions League, World Cup final, becoming the best goalkeeper in the world too. I have the opportunity and the chance to play against these great goalies. They are there ! They are not far away. I am still working and I hope to reach their level and maybe even exceed them.
At 23, they may not have been your level either …
(Smile) Buffon, he’s had this level since he was 17 (laughs)! There is still a long way to go, but I have to keep hoping, keep working and get it right. There’s something we don’t mention very much: being a color guard, African, you’re undercut, you’re seen differently. It’s up to us to make a difference. Two years earlier, after my Europa League final, I was speaking with a club in Italy whose name I will not be naming. We were talking quietly and the sports director said to my agent: “A black goalkeeper is complicated here.” But I was happy! They didn’t tell me I was a bad goalie, they said they didn’t want me because I was black, it’s different. This is something I cannot control: I am black and I am proud to be black! Being African is (he searches for his words). Despite the misery there, it is the most beautiful continent in the world and I say it loud and clear: I am proud! As they say in Spanish, I am “orgulloso”, I am “proud”.
One day wearing the Barça first team jersey, is it in the back of your mind?
Yes of course ! But it’s not just Barça. I went to Barça, I am very happy to have been there and I say “thank you.” But it’s not just Barça in life.
There is Paris Saint-Germain too …
(Smile) They’re great PSG! They have Navas who is an excellent goalkeeper, they also have Sergio Rico who is a very good Spanish goalkeeper I know. They also have Alphonse Areola who is on loan to Real Madrid. I think this situation is very good for them on this side. I’m at Ajax, I’m calm and time will tell.
If you weren’t a footballer, what job would you have done?
Me ? Pfff … Maybe Uber driver (laughs)! I’m talking to you about my reality, someone who always put football before school. It would have been hard, it would have been hard!
If you were a journalist, what question would you ask André Onana?
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That’s a good question. “Why in the match against Tottenham, he lost all this time? “. If you remember the match against Tottenham, less than a minute from the end, I change the ball. And when I change the ball, the referee gives an extra minute. At that time, we are in a defensive position, it’s hot, it’s hot! It was new to us, we were always used to being in front. 1-0, 2-0 … In these kinds of situations, we have to defend, we don’t know how to defend, we are not used to defending. And what comes there is: try to kill time, as long as possible, like that we whistle. But I don’t know that the more I kill, the more we add (smile). And I think it’s that detail … (he laughs yellow) I’m not talking about that, it gives me … I don’t mean it’s only that, but today, I would have acted differently. That’s the difference between great goalies and good goalies. There are times when the great goalkeeper is able to read the game, he knows when to delay or accelerate. When you are a young goalkeeper, there are certain mistakes that you will make and that you must accept. I don’t know if it’s a mistake, but today, when I’m sitting and watching that game, I’m like, “Why don’t I have? I could have. “. But hey, you learn from your mistakes. Today I’m happy, I’m arriving at the Valencia stadium and I know when I have to play and calm down the game.
Finally, what grade would you give yourself for this interview?
I think I sucked … It was average, I can express myself better in Spanish. If it had been in Spanish, I would have said more concrete things.