Manchester United’s move for Inter’s André Onana seems to be inching closer with every passing hour and in Italy, there is an expectation that the Cameroon could well become a United player by early next week. A final bid is yet to go in but there seems to optimism that an agreement will be reached as talks remain ongoing between the two clubs.
Onana is the walking representation of what a modern-day goalkeeper should be and considering what United have (or had) in David de Gea, they will be doing a sensational U-turn. They will go from having a goalkeeper who has been dropped by his national team for not being a typical modern-day goalkeeper to having Onana, who left the Cameroon national team camp early as he refused to play the role of a traditional goalkeeper between the sticks during the World Cup. And he did that when Cameroon were fighting for survival in the group stages. It was quite a bold move.
That boldness, in itself, says a lot about the 27-year-old, who still plays in midfield in kick-abouts when he goes back to his humble town in Cameroon. Onana simply gets what football is about in 2023. He sweeps up, acts as an extra centre-back in possession, moves up with the ball to create numerical advantages or to play excellent line-breaking passes. Not just that, but he is fairly reliable at shot-stopping, somewhich can’t be said for De Gea anymore.
But to reduce Onana to being only a modern-day goalkeeper is slightly disrespectful. Granted, that is the best way to describe his playing style. But that isn’t the best way to describe what he is as a footballer, or as a character. For someone like Onana, going deeper into his mindset matters.
The Champions League final against Manchester City wasn’t a pleasant memory for the Nerazzurri tifosi. Before the game, every Inter player that spoke to the Italian press seemed fairly cautious. They spoke about the occassion, how Inter can’t take City lightly and shed light on the club’s history from 2010. But Onana’s words just hours before the game were refreshing, to say the least.
Defiantly, the Cameroonian said: “We are Inter and we must always win. We play against the strongest team in the world, but it is a final and finals are not played, they are won.”
No other Inter player seemed to come across as confident or as unfiltered as Onana, who obviously put in a sparkling performance in the final. Those words were simply different from what the other players said in their robotic tones and everyday monologues. It was the sign of a man who, more than being confident, instills faith in you.
And perhaps, Onana has become so superbly authoritative because his path to where he is wasn’t orthodox. Barcelona picked him up from the Samuel Eto’o Academy and after five long years at the La Masia academy, he could not break into the first team. When he had arrived at the club’s famed academy, Onana had left his family behind at the tender age of 14. Throughout that five-year period, he would live fairly alone and despite some errors on the pitch, he would come back. It was a different culture from how things are in Cameroon but Onana was unfazed and despite the lack of a family, he adapted and impressed.
A case can be made for the fact that if Barcelona had a clear pathway into the first-team, Onana could have played for the Catalans. But despite making a mark, Onana had to leave Barcelona without playing for the Barcelona B side. A bit like Dani Olmo, who took a different route after his Barcelona exit, Onana found himself at Ajax. Once again, it was a completely new country. But as always, young André was up to the task. His command over atleast five languages says a lot about his ability to adapt, evolve, let go of a previous identity and be humble about change.
All of that tells the story of someone who has been through a fair share of uncomfortable experiences at a very early age but he smashed past hurdles with fitting resolve. Fast forward to the Champions League final, Onana did stand tall during the game but even after the final whistle – as the Inter players covered their faces in agony, the goalkeeper lifted them up, hugged them and made sure that they were proud of a truly impressive showing in Istanbul. All of that when he was probably the best player on the pitch. But he was the first one to give others credit and use that to rally them.
That is the sign of a true leader. And it isn’t a rarity to see Onana marshaling the defenders in front of him. In the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Porto, Onana put veteran Edin Džeko on the spot after the Bosnian was constantly having a go at the referee. In the second leg, Onana kept Inter in the game multiple times and had a fantastic close-range save in stoppage time to herald a 1-0 win. Sadly enough, his performance in the final has been given a lot of credit. But the performance against Porto in the second leg was perhaps just as crucial for Inter’s progression.
United are probably a different kettle of fish for players. And some players struggle. De Gea himself will confirm that. But Onana will not. Even if he does, he will come fighting back like he always does and show how resilient he is. His career speaks volumes of that.
United fans need not be worried. He will set the tone for Erik ten Hag’s system at Old Trafford.
Kaustubh Pandey | GIFN