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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Andre Onana and Cameroon – a dysfunctional relationship that could boil over again

On Wednesday afternoon, the jet that had brought Andre Onana from the north of England to Ivory Coast was waiting on the tarmac at Felix Houphouet-Boigny Airport in Abidjan, the latter’s largest city.

The Cameroonian goalkeeper had travelled through the night, taking off at 10.30pm on Sunday, following his Manchester United side’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford that afternoon.

The Athletic can reveal that United had covered the cost of the flight with a company called VistaJet, which charges between $12,000 and $20,000 per hour spent in the air for a private charter.

The final cost depends on the type of membership and which aircraft is selected — a roughly eight-hour journey means United paid a minimum of $100,000 (around £79,000) to hold onto Onana for as long as possible before the start of Cameroon’s campaign at this AFCON.

Ultimately, Onana did not play for his country in their opening Africa Cup of Nations group match the following day.

There is so much claim and counterclaim as to why he was left out of the side that drew 1-1 with Guinea on Monday evening that it is difficult to know which information to follow. But there is no doubt that the logistical schedule to get him to this tournament did not go to plan.

Onana had been slated to land at an airport in Yamoussoukro, the inland Ivorian capital where the Group C game was being held. Instead, he went to Abidjan, 233km (144 miles) away on the coast. Representatives of the player suggest this was because of fog in the centre of the country.

Certainly, as The Athletic travelled to Yamoussoukro by road on Monday morning, a thin layer of mist lifted from the canopies of the region’s forests as the heat of the day began to cut through the atmosphere.

After the game with Guinea, Rigobert Song, the Cameroon manager, suggested it had been impossible for Onana to play that day, and that he was using “logic” in saying so.

Song asked, “How can you arrive at 4am and play at 5pm?”. In fact, Onana was not meant to arrive at Yamoussoukro’s tiny regional airport, where planes need special permits to land, until 6am at the earliest.

Onana certainly seemed surprised at his omission, but he did not complain publicly about it. 

“I have a lot of things to say, but I won’t say it here because we are in competition,” he said. “The most important thing is sacred union. We are here to win AFCON 2023. 

“I am one of the leaders so I take my responsibilities and that is why I am here,” he continued. “I don’t want people to criticise the youngest. Let people continue to criticise me — I’m used to it, I do what is good for my country. 

“It’s like choosing between my father and my mother, but my country comes first, that’s why I’m here. We’re together.”

Onana, right, training with Cameroon on Thursday (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Yamoussoukro is a three-hour drive from Abidjan, depending on the intensity of the traffic. Reporters in Cameroon believe Onana did not arrive at the team hotel in the capital until midday on Monday — just five hours before kick-off.

On that basis, it would be understandable if he was left out. Why, then, did Song claim that he appeared much earlier, at a time that was impossible, given his take-off from Manchester was just five and a half hours earlier than the suggested arrival? Onana was not flying on Concorde.

If the timeframe proposed by Song was accurate, it would indicate he has either been given the wrong information in relation to the planning of the journey, or he has been misled about its execution.

The player’s club commitments in England the previous day were always going to lead to him, at best, arriving at the team hotel in Yamoussoukro in the early hours of Monday.

Does that mean Song was not counting on Onana, regardless of the late rush to get him back to Africa? And if Song was aware of these arrangements, why did he make him board the plane on Sunday night in the first place, when the player could have travelled later on a schedule that improved the chances of him turning up in a fresher state of mind?

Song might have been protecting the reputation of the organisation he represents. Yet the player, the manager and the country’s football federation do not seem to be on the same page about what really happened.

Representatives of Onana have denied reports he had to be calmed down by the former Senegalese striker, El Hadji Diouf, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium after finding out about his omission from the matchday squad to face Guinea.

Song, a former Liverpool and West Ham United defender who won a record 137 caps for Cameroon in his playing days, was installed as their manager in February 2022, just two months after the legendary Samuel Eto’o was elected as the president of the country’s leading football authority.

Cameroon are hoping to follow a similar path taken by Senegal, who appointed their former captain Aliou Cisse as manager in 2015 and stuck with him despite disheartening early results. Senegal went on to become AFCON champions and are defending the title they won in Cameroon two years ago in this tournament.

Song has a reputation as a disciplinarian, bringing some old-school values to the national set-up. This has led to clashes with some players, who were banished from the squad despite their previous importance to the team.

It helped Song in Cameroon’s first group game that Onana has an able deputy with vast international experience. Fabrice Ondoa, who is also Onana’s cousin, won his 50th cap in that match against Guinea.

After three training sessions in Ivory Coast, Onana returned to the starting XI for the second group game, yesterday (Friday) against Senegal. The match did not start well for him, shanking a relatively easy pass into touch in the third minute, before conceding a goal in the 16th.

He has been criticised for his role in Ismaila Sarr’s opener, having failed to get much distance on his punch from a corner. Then in the second phase of play, Onana was beaten. When former Liverpool forward Sadio Mane confirmed Senegal’s 3-1 victory with a stoppage-time goal, he slid the ball past the United goalkeeper with ease.

“We are not eliminated,” Onana said after the game. “We are a great nation and we will take our responsibilities.”

Onana was the last competitor to arrive at this AFCON.

Unless Cameroon take their responsibilities and beat Gambia, who have lost both their matches here and are yet to score a goal, in their group finale on Tuesday, he will be among the first to leave.

(Top photo: MB Media/Getty Images)

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