Andre Onana has had quite a year. Inter’s surprise run to the 2023 Champions League final was underpinned by the Cameroon international’s superb distribution from the back, which led to him becoming the most sought-after goalkeeper on the continent.
Manchester United ultimately won the race for Onana, who was initially seen as a potentially transformative signing for Erik ten Hag’s side after David de Gea’s calamitous final season at Old Trafford. Ten Hag had previously worked with him at Ajax, too, and insisted he had all the necessary qualities to take United “to higher levels”.
The reunion has yet to pay dividends, however, with Onana struggling to adapt to life in Manchester amid a dramatic decline in performance for the whole team. United have fallen to seventh in the Premier League after 21 games this season, while also crashing out of the Champions League and Carabao Cup – and Onana has been guilty of making a host of embarrassing mistakes along the way.
The 27-year-old has been poor across the board, from his basic handling and positioning, to directing the defence and coming out for crosses. Even with the ball at his feet, Onana has been wildly erratic, but incredibly, he has failed to acknowledge the fact he needs to work on these glaring deficiencies.
“Listen, you want to tell me in six months the best goalkeeper in the Champions League last season can become the worst in the world? Nah. Everything is temporary,” he told Sky Sports last month. And now, with United’s 2023-24 campaign essentially in ruins, that arrogant streak is also threatening to derail Cameroon’s Africa Cup of Nations campaign before it’s even had chance to properly get going.
‘Why did I come here on a private jet?’
After being named in Cameroon’s final 27-man squad for the AFCON, Onana submitted an official request to delay his call-up, so that he could play for United in their FA Cup third-round tie against Wigan Athletic on January 8, and their Premier League clash with Tottenham six days later – as per ESPN.
Cameroon gave Onana permission to stay with his club for a few extra days, but he wasted no time starting his journey to the Ivory Coast after the Spurs game, travelling 5,000 miles in less than 24 hours to be there before Cameroon’s opening game against Guinea. His private jet ended up taking 16 hours to arrive, after being diverted 150 miles south to Abidjan due to fog – eventually touching down at 6am Monday morning. Onana then completed a long drive to Yamoussoukro by 2pm, just three hours before Cameroon were due to take to the pitch.
Despite having not been a part of his country’s pre-tournament preparation, Onana thought he was still a guaranteed starter, and it came as a huge shock when Rigobert Song opted for Fabrice Ondoa to line-up against Guinea instead. Onana looked visibly emotional when he was later seen talking to El Hadji Diouf about the situation, and according to The Telegraph, he even asked the former Liverpool and Senegal winger: “If I wasn’t going to play or make the team, then why did I come here on a private jet?”
The Indomitable Lions were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw at the Charles Konan Banny Stadium as Onana watched on from the sidelines, and he made his feelings toward his manager and the Cameroon Football Federation clear after the game. “I have a lot to say but I will not say it here because we are in competition,” he told Canal Plus. “Let me continue to be criticised, I am used to it. I do what is good for my country.”
‘Alienated’ his own fans
If Song had started Onana, it would not have been good for his country. Whether he’d have admitted it or not, the United star would have been suffering from tiredness after his arduous journey, which could quite easily have affected his concentration levels between the sticks.
Onana had no right to demand a place in the team after making the selfish decision to delay his call-up. “It’s like choosing between my father and my mother, but my country comes first,” he said when trying to explain himself in front of the media. “That’s why I’m here. We are together. We are here to win [the tournament].”
But Cameroon supporters are right to question Onana’s commitment to the collective cause. “It’s a low from Onana to even consider it,” former Tottenham defender Sebastien Bassong said in an interview with the BBC World Service. “It sends such a bad message, not only for Cameroon, but for the respect people will have for the Africa Cup of Nations and for the way they should treat us, the equality. The nation, the pride of the country and the continent is way above an individual person. For me, he should stay home and be punished.”
Emmanuel Adebayor, the former Arsenal and Togo striker who was no stranger to controversy in his own career, echoed Bassong’s sentiments, suggesting Onana’s reputation in his homeland has now been damaged beyond repair.
“He [Onana] did not respect Cameroon. I was a player like him, and even being the most important player in my selection, I never acted in this way [arriving on the day of the match],” Adebayor said to Sport News Africa. “The fact that this situation is happening shows that there is a problem, perhaps even within the federation. He risks losing big, because he has alienated the Cameroonian supporters, as well as many African supporters and undoubtedly certain members of the team.”
World Cup disgrace
This is not the first time that Onana has disrespected the Cameroon national team, or Song. Onana was in the goal for the Indomitable Lions’ first group game of the 2022 World Cup against Switzerland, which they lost 1-0 courtesy of a second-half goal from Breel Embolo.
Onana had 61 touches in the game, a tournament-leading total for goalkeepers at the time, as he demanded the ball at every opportunity to kick start Cameroon’s attacks. Song wanted a more ‘traditional’ style of goalkeeping, though, with his side lacking the technical quality to play out from the back, and instructed Onana to adjust his game accordingly.
The former Inter talisman refused and was dropped from Cameroon’s second fixture against Serbia, which sparked a ‘blazing row’ between player and manager, according to the Daily Mail. Onana was sent home after the dispute, with Song revealing the full details in a leaked video, saying: “The day of the game with Serbia, I told Onana that I needed to talk to him and he started crying. Onana puts on a show in training but takes too many risks during games.
“I told him repeatedly, ‘You should take no risks. Pass the ball wide, not in the middle’. ‘He told me, ‘I am playing, I don’t have time to talk to you’. When he was at the hotel, he didn’t talk to me, but went to president Samuel [Eto’o] and he sent him I don’t know where.”
Song later insisted that Onana’s removal from the squad was “for the team’s good”, with his “honour in Cameroon broken”. Devis Epassy stepped in against Serbia, and conceded three goals as Cameroon battled back from two down to draw 3-3, with Onana firing one final parting shot at Song when heading to the airport the following day.
“Yesterday I was not allowed to be on the ground to help Cameroon, as I always do, to achieve the team’s goals. I always behaved in a way to lead the team to success in a good manner,” he said in a statement on X. “I have put all my efforts and energy into finding solutions to a situation that a footballer often experiences, but there has been no will on the other side.”
Onana undermined Song in Qatar, and in doing so nearly tore the dressing room apart right in the middle of Cameroon’s first appearance at the World Cup since 2014. The Indomitable Lions won their final group game 1-0 against Brazil, and although it wasn’t enough to reach the last-16, they once again showed a team spirit that was lacking in their opener against Switzerland.
Epassy didn’t have the same pedigree as Onana, but he truly did what was best for the team in goal, and got his reward with a clean sheet against the five-time world champions. The Cameroon squad had always been a safety net for Onana, especially when he returned to football after a nine-month doping ban in 2021, and helping his team reach the World Cup knockout stage would have been the perfect way to express his gratitude.
Instead, he put Cameroon on the backfoot right from the off, making everything about him. That trend continued after the tournament had finished, as Onana made the shock announcement that he was retiring from international football at the age of 26.
“My story with the Cameroonian national team has come to an end,” he said in another loaded social media post. “Players come and go, names are fleeting, but Cameroon comes before any person or player. Cameroon remains eternal and so does my love for the national team.”
Onana was completely oblivious to the irony of his words. Still, the decision seemed final for the best part of eight months, until Song named the ‘keeper in his squad for Cameroon’s AFCON qualifying clash against Burundi in September.
“It all depended on him. He knew what he had to do,” the ex-Liverpool defender said when explaining Onana’s return. “If he’s on the list, it’s because he did the right thing. He’s one of the best goalkeepers, the door was always open. There was never a problem with Andre. Today, we are satisfied that he is reunited with the group.”
The implication was that Onana had apologised for his role in the initial breakdown in his relationship with Song. However, his actions since then suggest that he didn’t feel any genuine remorse, and Cameroon could end up paying the price for his egotistical nature once again.
Onana’s chequered history with Cameroon can even be traced as far back as 2017, at which point he had just broken into the Ajax senior squad as a teenager. He was so determined to make a name for himself in Amsterdam that he turned down an invite to his first ever AFCON, which the Indomitable Lions ended up winning.
Cameroon will have to up their performance levels significantly if they are to repeat the feat this time around, with a crucial fixture against holders Senegal up next on Friday. Song’s side would probably settle for another draw, safe in the knowledge that the four best third-placed teams in the group stage will also progress to the knockouts, but a defeat would pile on the pressure.
It will be tempting for Song to draft Onana straight back into his line-up for such a crucial game. The United shot-stopper appeared to be in high spirits when pictured in training on Wednesday, but it’s not yet a certainty he will start ahead of Ondoa.
“We will see his form to see if he can play. Everything will depend on him,” Song said in his pre-match press conference. Onana will be confident of getting the nod, but he really should be counting himself lucky that he is still a part of this Cameroon squad.
Onana hasn’t shown the characteristics of a top professional or goalkeeper this season, for club or country. United certainly haven’t been able to rely on him, and Song knows only too well how volatile he can be when things aren’t going his way.
Whatever the final result against Senegal, he may just end up regretting giving Onana a second chance.