Can Man United’s Onana eclipse controversy to inspire Cameroon AFCON glory?

Cameroon's Andre Onana saves a penalty from Burkina Faso's Blati Toure on February 5, 2022 [Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Onana, the latest in a line of controversial Cameroon goalkeepers, could be key to continental victory.

Just as Cameroon produces outstanding goalkeepers arguably more than any other nation in Africa, they are uniquely prone to controversy in that department as well: Manchester United’s first-choice Andre Onana is merely the latest of them.

The most infamous example happened in the 1980s and ’90s when the 20-year rivalry between goalkeepers Thomas N’Kono and Joseph-Antoine Bell reached new dimensions. The latter accused team manager Valery Nepomnyashchy of succumbing to “high Cameroonian domestic politics” after he was dropped on the eve of the 1990 World Cup for criticising the team. There were also rumours that Bell’s constant clamour for improved bonuses had irritated the Cameroonian Football Federation (FECAFOOT) and made the sports minister consider revoking his citizenship.

In 2013, experienced first-choice keeper Carlos Kameni was dropped from the national team for, according to then-Cameroon coach Volker Finke, being a disorderly influence in the dressing room.

So Onana’s eviction from the Indomitable Lions camp during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, following an unspecified difference of opinion with coach Rigobert Song, came as no surprise.

The player’s subsequent decision to retire, however, in the midst of arguably the best season of his career to that point, fuelled speculation as to the exact details of events in Qatar.

“The public is still divided over the Qatar issue mainly because the FA [football association] has never really explained what happened out there,” says Simon Lyonga, a sports journalist who works with CRTV, Cameroon’s government broadcaster.

“While some think it’s a witch-hunt against the player, many are of the opinion that his closeness to the FA president gave him a big head.”

Cameroon take on Guinea on Monday in the first match at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Onana will miss it, not because he is still in retirement, but because he opted to play a league game for his club on Sunday – and that has reignited controversy.

The 27-year-old’s return to the Cameroon fold came in September’s AFCON qualifier against Burundi after he reversed his decision due to the intervention of FECAFOOT president, Samuel Eto’o, from whose academy Onana joined Barcelona at age 14.

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Manchester United’s Andre Onana with teammates remonstrate with referee Anthony Taylor after a penalty is awarded to Arsenal, September 3, 2023 [David Klein/Reuters]

Season of errors

The timing of his return was opportune for Onana. In the summer, fresh from impressing as Italian giants Inter Milan reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2022-23, he moved to Manchester United in a deal worth 50 million euros (about $55m at the current exchange rate).

It seemed a perfect fit for all parties: not only was the reunion with former Ajax manager Erik ten Hag expected to lead to seamless integration, but a club of United’s size and ambitions seemed like the perfect vehicle for Onana’s upfront style and personality.

Reality has been different, however.

Onana has sharply divided opinion, making several high-profile errors and drawing criticism from fans and pundits alike. In particular, the blame for Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League, where the club finished bottom of a group consisting of FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray, has been placed at his feet.

“If I have to speak about my season so far for Manchester United, I am not happy because I know I can do much much better,” he admitted in an interview with Sky Sports, even though his willingness to own up to errors has done little to soothe fan disapproval.

Against that backdrop, it was widely expected that he would jump at the opportunity to leave for the AFCON, even if only to repair his image amid home comforts. While the pressure of being a goalkeeper is impossible to escape on international duty, Onana still retained overwhelming support from his country’s faithful on account of his humanitarian and philanthropic efforts back home. Due to that, apportioning blame or bearing grudges against Onana is a path many were uncomfortable treading.

In general, despite his struggles in England, Cameroon fans have been broadly encouraging, willing to go to war for their compatriot on social media amid fierce backlash.

“I have come across tweets and even sat in the gathering of many football lovers who outrightly say, no one has the right to bash Onana because he is one of the best in the world at the moment,” Oni Ladonette Ondesa, a sports journalist at Cameroon’s STV, told Al Jazeera. “I believe many have come to understand how free-spirited he can be, and are learning to accept not only his style of play but his personality as well.”

Courting controversy

Onana’s decision to delay his arrival for the AFCON has therefore come as a shock to many, with previously sympathetic fans not sure what to make of it.

While some understand an agreement was reached between FECAFOOT, Onana, and the management of Manchester United, it is a hard sell for others. A lot of Cameroonians are unhappy with his decision, as he is the starting goalkeeper; they believe beginning a competition with every key element is essential for a team with designs of success, and so are quite worried about the absence of Onana.

“Many see it as [an act of] defiance to the technical team,” Lyonga says. “He was not in the preparation phase in Jeddah and many are of the opinion that he should be left out of the first game, and if the sit-in keeper plays well, he should be kept even in the presence of Onana.”

Deputies Fabrice Ondoa and Davis Epassy are capable enough – the former was in goal when Cameroon won their most recent AFCON trophy in 2017, and the latter stepped in for the Indomitable Lions’ final two matches at the World Cup. Using either would be no problem for coach and former captain Song, who typically adopts a hardline stance where squad discipline is concerned.

If, however, Onana is entrusted with the gloves upon his belated arrival, analysts say he will have nowhere to hide: every error will be magnified, every move scrutinised. For all that he frequently backs himself, in order to earn redemption in Cote d’Ivoire, he will have to weather unprecedented pressure. That is the risk; the potential reward – a chance to win over his critics and detractors – is worth gambling on.



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