Confederations Cup: A family affair for Cameroon’s goalkeepers ahead of Chile challenge

Ajax’s No 1 Onana has no issue with his cousin, Ondoa, pulling on the gloves first for their country, writes Ian Hawkey

Ajax and Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana. Reuters
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Andre Onana fills a room with his laugh. His voice can carry the length of a football pitch, even in a noisy stadium.

That’s an important quality for a goalkeeper.

Over the past nine months, Onana has established himself as a keeper of authority.

Last month he signed a five-year contract with his club, Ajax, having helped guide them to their first major European final for 21 years, the Europa League.

Today, he expects to sit on the substitutes’ bench for his country Cameroon as they take on Chile in Group B of the Confederations Cup.

You might imagine Onana would take his reserve status as a snub, given that the No 1 keeper in the eyes of Cameroon manager Hugo Broos is a 21-year-old who has started just two matches for his club, Sevilla Atletico, of the Spanish second division, this season.

Not so. Onana and his country’s first pick, Fabrice Ondoa are close, and when the younger man – the Ajax keeper turned 21 in April, just over three months after Ondoa – refers to the other as a “brother”, he is barely speaking figuratively. They are actually cousins and have followed one another, almost step by step, throughout their careers.

“We played together as kids,” Onana told this reporter, recalling his childhood in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon.

“Then we were together at the Samuel Eto’o Academy in Douala. So you can say we have been together in football for nine, maybe 10 years.

“Five years of that was in Barcelona, sharing a room.”

Eto’o, the former Cameroon captain and Barcelona and Inter Milan striker, has been an influential figure for both Onana and Ondoa, initially because of his patronage of the academy that bore his name and in the links he established with Barcelona’s respected youth system, where both Onana and Ondoa impressed as teenagers before moving on in search of stronger guarantees that they would gain first-team football. Onana’s transfer to Ajax would yield that.

This time a year ago, he had become frustrated at doing duty mainly for Ajax’s feeder team.

Then Barcelona bought Jasper Cillessen, the Dutch international, from Ajax, and the Amsterdam club’s short-term replacement, Tim Krul, got injured.

Onana was promoted, excelled and has hardly looked back.

But here is the twist.

Over in Andalusia, southern Spain, Ondoa, who had also moved from Barca, was stuck on the bench for Sevilla’s feeder team, Sevilla Atletico.

So when the Africa Cup of Nations came round in January, he had mixed emotions when Onana withdrew from the squad, thought it meant Ondoa got the national jersey, some senior match time.

Ondoa kept goal brilliantly at the Nations Cup, which the so-called Indomitable Lions won.

As Onana remembers, his withdrawal may have benefited his cousin but it left him with bridges to build.

“Every young footballer wants to represent his country, so it was a crucial decision for me,” Onana says, “but I think I made the right one. I wanted to not miss games for Ajax by going away to the Cup of Nations.

“But there were people in Cameroon who were mad at me. It’s OK now. I spoke with the coach and so I was selected for the Confederations Cup.”

His rapprochement with Broos was more than some of the European-based players, six in all, who withdrew from the Nations Cup, have managed, but he was also left clear about the goalkeeping hierarchy.

“Fabrice is our No 1. Anyone who watched him at the Nations Cup will see why,” says Broos ahead of today’s confrontation with Alexis Sanchez’s Chile in Moscow. Broos will anticipate no signs of envy between his first and second-choice keepers.

In that, he is luckier than some of his predecessors.

In the distinguished history of fine Cameroonian glovemen, there was for years a famously fraught coexistence between Thomas Nkono, the spectacular hero of the World Cup campaigns of 1982 and 1990 and the role-model for a young Gianluigi Buffon, and Nkono’s contemporary, Joseph-Antoine Bell, who captained Marseille.

Neither ever liked to be benched in favour of other and the rivalry was often inflamed.

“I am too young to remember them playing,” Onana says, “but growing up, my dad used to talk about Nkono and tell us ‘He was like a cat’.”

Two generations on, the cousins both have a feline agility, but no cattiness to their rivalry.

“Fabrice and I,” says Onana with a smile, “have a very nice relationship.”

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