André Onana on the mistake that led to a nine-month ban: ’40 mg could ruin a career ‘| Ajax

ONEndré Onana had a headache. He had landed in the wee hours of a flight back from Bergamo, where Ajax had drawn 2-2 to Atalanta and did not sleep much. When he woke up, his head was still hurting. The training did not last for a couple of hours, so instead of waiting until he arrived at De Toekomst, Ajax’s training base, he took a paracetamol from the medicine box in the kitchen and started. After the session, he was called for yet another routine drug test, his third in a week. He did not think anything of it. Not then at least. He could be forgiven for not thinking on the other side.

“Football is not a human game,” says Onana. He’s been talking for over an hour, and that’s all he says in English. He speaks without melodrama or annoyance and with a dignity – even an acceptance – that is disturbing. It is also practiced in part; an exercise in necessity, in self-control and survival. It was October 2020 and it could have been the end. Two days later, the analysis arrived, the goalkeeper informed when he was with Cameroon: he had tested positive, one of very few football players found guilty of doping.

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An international match of 20, a Europa League finalist of 21, a Champions League semi-finalist of 23, the leader of a brilliant young Ajax team heading towards the title, now seemed a hugely promising career on the verge of collapse. He was 24.

It did not make sense. Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar said his ear dropped as they walked to Onana’s house and looked through the box: “Then we understood.” Instead of Litacold, he had accidentally taken Lasimac, a furosemide-based diuretic. Furosemide, which is prescribed to his wife after giving birth, is a banned substance. The blister packs looked the same, so did the pills – small white circles, almost 6 mm in diameter. The smallest thing, the biggest influence. “It’s incredible: 40 mg can ruin a career,” he says.

It’s Onana’s version and it’s a Uefa accepted. They concluded that there had been no attempt to cheat, but they banned him anyway, starting in February this year. “I’m just a number,” he says. “They can not deal with case after case. I think they should, but there are rules and the rules are the rules.” Said the doctors. [Furosemide] is for water retention and does not benefit you. They realized it was a real mistake, but you are responsible for everything in your body. If I buy a bottle of water that turns out to be contaminated, it is my responsibility. If you accidentally kill someone driving a car, the law says… “But you have not killed anyone, I point out. “Yes, but you have to be careful,” Onana replies. “There’s a ‘minister’ and he’s punishing you. It’s a human error.”

Andre Onana celebrates after Ajax opened the scoring against Chelsea in the Champions League in 2019
André Onana celebrates after Ajax opened the scoring against Chelsea in the Champions League in 2019. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

“Look, a few days ago something happened,” adds Onana, referring to the erroneous Champions League draw. “Even the biggest ones make mistakes.” There is a smile, but if there is a temptation to tear into Uefa, he never succumbs, even though 12 months meant missing “league, Champions League, cup, Super Cup, an Africa Nations at home”. A career derailed.

In June, the Arbitration Court for Sport found “no significant error” and reduced Onana’s sentence to nine months, but the effect is felt longer. It’s not just the games, or even just football: there is something cruel, almost vengeful about it, the player as a non-person, isolated and alone, the game continues without him. They do not call, tell you they will wait for there to be a place when you return? “No,” says Onana. “Football is not like that. When you are banned, you can not step on your foot [club’s training] the track, can not enter the locker room. We [Ajax] were league champions. I had played 60% of the matches and I was not allowed to celebrate it. Some things in life do not depend on you and you just have to be pragmatic.

“As soon as we found out, we put together a team. Seven people. It’s not easy to find a trainer who does not work. You will find your psychologist, a fitness trainer, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist, a place to work, live “I went to Salou. You have to focus on what’s important – the people you love and who love you – and prepare yourself as best you can.”

He continues: “You can not even use the African nations as motivation, a goal, because logic says you do not get there. Football turns its back on. I was just trying to survive, come back better. Always try to see the positive side . But sometimes you can not. As a goalkeeper it’s hard: you go, another player. There are moments you think about giving in. I was lucky: I have good people. If it happens and you are alone, you will give up.You will not have the will to go through it.

“It’s also the way you are perceived. It’s ‘doping’: you’re a ‘drug addict’. How will you explain to your parents that you have been tested positive when you have never smoked or drunk? ” Masturbation draws a label on the forehead. “How do you get rid of this? There will still be people thinking [I’m guilty]. People do not always have time to be informed. The police stopped me in Belgium. The normal thing: ‘Documents?’ When I show my identity card, one of them recognizes me. “Mr. Onana, get out of the car.” They check the whole car. That whole thing. I hear someone say, ‘This guy takes a lot of drugs.’ ”

Ajax, without Onana, celebrate their Eredivisie championship in May
Ajax, without Onana, celebrate their Eredivisie championship in May. Photo: SCS / Sander Chamid / AFLO / Shutterstock

Masturbation erupts in laughter. “To did hurt. I’m laughing now, but the only reason I did not end up in a fight is because they were cops. If not, I go out and… “Masturbation raises its fists. “Where do you want to go with what’s written here?” he continues, signaling his head again. “I’m back, but if it happens to someone who is less mentally strong, it would be very difficult.”

Masturbation is strong, okay. He has had to be. Born in the small village of Nkol Ngok with almost 400 inhabitants, he was discovered at a competition held by the Samuel Eto’o Foundation in Yaoundé, joined Barcelona as a 14-year-old, slept in a bedroom inde Camp Nou, went to Ajax as an 18-year-old. Football, he admits, can be a lonely match, players scared. “But it’s our job. We’re here to ‘entertain’ the people. It seems [people think] we do not have emotions sometimes. “

He tells of his fears of reaching the Europa League final still a “child” and the support of Van der Sar. “I could not have had a better godfather,” he says. “Goalkeeper is a misleading position. From the outside you can not understand how much pressure there is. An example: Stockholm, the Europa League final. Six months earlier I had been second team goalkeeper, with a reason of 3,000. It’s a game. Against [Manchester] United. The aftermath. The whole world is watching. I get there and tell the coach I can not play, I do not feel right. Van der Sar gives an interview: ‘Tell André I did not bring gloves, then he player.’ I wake up and see it. It really helped me.

“We lost because we were very young. This guy is sick, he’s not feeling well, we all look at the floor, scared. But we only lost on small details, and after I said to myself: never again will “I feel fear in football. It helped me deal with the pressure in the years that followed.”

Which did not make them easy. When Ajax were denied a place in the Champions League final in 2019 under the most heartbreaking circumstances against Tottenham, he says Amsterdam felt as if it was in “World War II: no one spoke, everyone cried” and he still could not tell you. who scored in the final. He was on a flight determined not to know it. It hurt too much. “But you learn, you become stronger.” Onana says.

Onana trains on her own in Salou
Onana trains on her own in Salou. Photo: No credit

In November, excluded, he played for Cameroon against Malawi and Ivory Coast and for Ajax against Besiktas, reward for his opposition, a fresh start. Now he has joined the Common Goal and is collaborating on a project for blind orphans in his home country. “I can not change their lives completely, but maybe I can help them become a little happier. After the year I’ve had, I would end up feeling good.”

There is a sense of beginning again, cruelty overcome, if never gone, opportunity ahead that lonely work is worthwhile. This summer he joins Internazionale and he is available to host next month’s Africa Cup of Nations. The Cas verdict gave him a chance, even though inactivity means nothing is guaranteed. In his absence, Remko Pasveer became Ajax’s first choice and three matches is not much preparation. “The coach can always say, ‘Listen, the other one plays regularly and you …'” says Onana. “If I play, it’s an honor. It was strange to play again; I was nervous. But it depends on what you’ve been doing for nine months. I was ready from day one.

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“Football is a ‘game’, but when there’s so much at stake, there’s not much humanity. Being banned is not a good thing, but you learn so much, find out who really matters in your life. It helped me work on other aspects: more time to train, look back, make corrections. When I came back, I stepped on the weight, the shirt off, and they said, ‘Holy shit, that’s not how you looked when you walked away. ‘ They are happy for me. Much said: ‘André, if it happened to me, I would have let myself go’. But when it gets tough, you have to get even tougher. ”

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