AFCON 2021 boasts a number of high profile names; Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mané being some of the major headliners. You don’t need to look too far down the list of stars to see the focal point of this article. André Onana is the Cameroon goalkeeper, notably guarding the nets for European powerhouse Ajax. He’s made around 200 appearances for the Dutch giants and has been a mainstay for the Cameroonian national team since 2018, or as much of a mainstay as can be given the torrid time that Covid has caused over the past two years. He is undoubtedly the first name on the teamsheet for The Indomitable Lions, and yet he was scarily close to missing this tournament, despite being in perfect condition.
Why would André Onana be of risk of not playing for his country, one might ask? The answer… he has spent much of the last year serving a drugs ban. That’s right. André Onana was banned by FIFA in February 2021 for twelve months for taking a banned substance. This may sound depressing for such a likeable young goalkeeper, but dig a little deeper and the story is far less sinister than it seems.
It all started with a headache, a stupid little headache. He did what anyone would do in this situation; he went to gulp down a couple headache pills. Last time I checked, Paracetamol wasn’t a banned substance. Unfortunately for Onana, furosemide is.
What is furosemide? That’s what I asked when I read this story for the first time, courtesy of The Players’ Tribune. It’s the same question that Onana asked when the Ajax team doctor phoned the player to explain the situation.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. And I’ve never touched drugs. No way.”
Furosemide is found in the pregnancy medicine taken by his girlfriend. They were trying to conceive and upon her doctor’s advice, she was taking these pills. By sheer bad luck, André had grabbed the wrong packet and just like that, the worst year of his life began.
At club level, he went from being the undisputed starter to in 2020/21, to having to watch from the sideline. Ajax understood that the player made a silly mistake. Not a bad choice written off as a silly mistake, but a genuine bona fide error. Nevertheless, they are a team fighting on domestic and European level, they had to move on and as such, Onana has been replaced.
He has been available since November time, yet that hasn’t seen him waltz back into the team. He can’t even get a place on the bench. Mistake or not, football is a cut-throat business and Onana is suffering. In February 2021 he received a 12 month ban and with all due respect to his employers, Ajax, that wasn’t at the forefront of his mind. He was supposed to be starting goalkeeper for Cameroon at the African Cup of Nations, a tournament being held in his home nation, and his ban was due to end shortly after the climax of the competition. He was devastated.
When he was just three years old, little André Onana saw his country triumph over Nigeria on penalties in the 2000 edition of AFCON. He says that his dad still talks about that day, about that win. He says that he grew up not thinking about playing at the Camp Nou or at Johan Cruyff Arena; he wanted to play at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaoundé. He wants to play for Cameroon, he wants to win with Cameroon, and he wants to be the best of the best. He saw the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream, and he was seeing his dream slip away.
If you’ve watched any of AFCON 2021 you’ll know that something has worked out. Onana is the starting goalkeeper for Cameroon, and he’s doing a bloody good job given that he’s played just two club games in the past year. This story has a happy ending, of sorts.
In the summer of 2021, the Court of Arbitration for Sport heard his case. They appreciated that he had made a blunder. They realised that he hadn’t taken drugs with the intention of cheating, he had merely picked the wrong bottle out of the cabinet. It happens. Shit happens. Regardless of the intentions, he had still ingested a banned substance and a ban had to be issued. Thankfully for Onana, and thankfully for Cameroon, it was reduced down from twelve months to nine. This may be the bulk of a year, a long time in a footballers career, but it meant that he was eligible to be selected for Cameroon the following January.
It could have been happier, of course. As mentioned, he has gone from being the number one for one of the most iconic teams in European football to a memory. He has lost friends. Many still consider him ‘a drugs cheat’, a blight on his name that will stick forever. Even if he gets a chance to play consistently for Ajax again, opposition fans aren’t likely to give him an easy time. The mental health impact must have been substantial, particularly given how tough the Covid-era has been for everybody.
The whole tale is an odd one. You can’t help but sympathise for the Cameroonian, a blearly-eyed blunder has cost him a year of his life (and most likely a substantial financial hit too). He did take the banned substance, so the ban was warranted, to a degree. Ultimately, it’s an example of chaos theory. Onana could have gone to take these pills a thousand times and would not have made this mistake 999 times.
Players have done a lot worse than André Onana and faced significantly less backlash. He is a tremendous goalkeeper and appears to be a genuinely lovely person, and I for one am glad that he has the opportunity to live his dream by participating in this tournament. He has had a torrid time over the past year, but he has worked hard and his redemption story starts here. Onana is not a drug cheat. If you take anything away from this article then remember, mistakes happen. Stories are not cut and dry, black and white. I have no allegiance to team Cameroon, but I do hope for his sake that Onana plays a blinder. After the year he has had, he deserves a slice of luck.
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