Ismailia, Egypt | AFP | Following in the footsteps of Joseph-Antoine Bell, Thomas Nkono and Jacques Songo’o as the latest in a line of acclaimed Cameroon goalkeepers is no minor task, but the Indomitable Lions are placing their faith in Andre Onana, one of the season’s revelations in Europe, as they bid to defend their title in Egypt.
Remarkably, his season which started with Ajax last July in the second Champions League qualifying round is still not over.
Throughout a campaign equally gruelling as unforgettable, Onana has experienced it all — from an epic European adventure, featuring memorable matches against Real Madrid, Juventus and Tottenham, to a league and cup double.
But that’s not enough to satisfy the 23-year-old who is craving further success at the Africa Cup of Nations, as Cameroon look to defend their continental crown on July 19.
“Our goal is to bring this title back to Cameroon once more,” he told AFP, ahead of his team’s opening 2-0 victory against Guinea-Bissau in Ismailia.
“It’s true it’s complicated and difficult, because we’re going to play against very good teams. But I think we’re going to succeed,” he said.
– ‘Something innate’ –
Unlike his cousin Fabrice Ondoa, a major architect behind Cameroon’s run to the 2017 title, Onana wasn’t in Gabon, a tournament played in its traditional January and February time slot, having preferred to focus on his club.
A fan favourite, Ondoa has since lost his place in goal, but he did earn the right to a song penned in his honour to celebrate his achievements.
“Fabrice and me, it’s family! We’re different … I don’t need a song, the most important thing is the title, both individually and collectively,” Onana said, refusing to draw comparisons between the two stoppers.
“If we bring it back to Cameroon, it will be something good for the country. Sporting victories form part of the stability of our country,” he added, with Cameroon, the original hosts of this year’s edition, stripped of the tournament last November after falling behind in preparations.
Blood relations aside, Cameroon’s knack of consistently producing top goalkeepers in uncanny.
“It’s something innate in this country,” laughed Onana. “On a more serious note, it’s a good question! When you look at the history of Cameroon, it’s incredible all the same. We’ve had Bell, Nkono … It’s thanks to the work put in by these people.”
– Strong Ajax influence –
For a former student at the Samuel Eto’o Foundation who passed through the Barcelona academy (2010-2015), the relaying of this know-how by former greats has played a decisive role in the spawning of a new generation.
“I was lucky enough to work with ‘Tommy’ Nkono (goalkeeping coach at Espanyol) with whom I learned a lot of things, Fabrice as well. We did little training camps and everything. It’s normal to progress, especially when you play at the top level and you know the right people,” he said.
In the national team, Onana can call on a pair of Ajax legends to continue his development in Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert. The duo were appointed Cameroon’s head coach and assistant respectively last August.
With three Ajax representatives in their ranks, it begs the question whether there is a temptation for Cameroon to adopt the Dutch giants’ famous philosophy.
“It’s difficult. It’s clear we want to control the game, but African football has its own realities. It’s hard to stay true to this philosophy because the state of pitches is not too favourable to that system,” said Onana.
“But we will go to Egypt with our own way of playing, our ‘winner mentality’,” he added. It’s certainly proved a recipe for success in the past with Cameroon triumphing in Africa’s most prestigious competition five times, in 1984, 1988, 2000, 2002 and 2017.