By Mark Gleeson
(Reuters) – When Andre Onana plays in goal for Cameroon at the World Cup it will be exactly one year since his return from a drugs ban that he is still struggling to bounce back from.
The 26-year-old spent nine months on the sidelines after banned diuretic furosemide was found in his urine.
He took his wife’s prescription medicine, after looking for an aspirin to quell a headache, and his explanation was accepted on appeal when the ban was cut from a year to nine months.
“A stupid mistake,” he has said, although adding: “There is little humanity in football. We are obviously not allowed to make mistakes and are treated like robots. A hard lesson.”
The incident brought an abrupt halt in January 2021 to a career that was blooming at Ajax Amsterdam where he was fast establishing himself as one of the best keepers in Europe.
Onana has not played nearly enough football since.
Ajax used him sparingly on his return in November last year when it was clear he was not going to re-sign for the club, looking to run out his contract to move elsewhere.
He joined Inter Milan in the close season but played second fiddle to Samir Handanovic in Serie A while being fielded in the starting lineup in the Champions League.
It was with Ajax in Europe’s elite club competition that Onana had come to prominence, an integral part of the team that went from the early preliminary knockout rounds to the 2019 semi-finals, before a dramatic elimination by Tottenham Hotspur.
“A natural talent, an unbelievably brilliant athlete,” is how former Ajax coach Erik ten Hag described him.
Onana started out in Samuel Eto’o’s academy before moving to Barcelona’s La Masia aged 14. The Spaniards sold him to Ajax in 2015 when he was only 18 and a season later he was in the first team, going on to play more than 200 times for the Dutch giants.
His international career was slow getting off the ground with Onana turning down a call-up for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations finals, seeking to put club before country, and missing out as the Indomitable Lions proved surprise winners.
That, however, was quickly forgiven and he has played at two Cup of Nations finals since and, once he was back from the drug ban, made some telling saves to help conclude Cameroon’s successful World Cup qualification.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Ken Ferris)