While the club jettisoned most of the foreign-born players subject to the rule, Onana’s promise was so high that he was persuaded to remain in the academy, where he was allowed to continue practicing every day but not to play in official games. The hiatus from competition took its toll. “You can train as much as you like but in the end you train to play,” Onana said. “And if you don’t, it affects you mentally and physically.”
By the time Onana turned 18, and was again eligible to play, Barcelona had signed Marc-André ter Stegen, a promising German goalkeeper, and Claudio Bravo, who had just helped Chile win the Copa América. Onana knew, he said, his future lay elsewhere.
He decided to try his luck in the Netherlands, and within a year he had established himself as Ajax’s No. 1 goalkeeper. He was only 19.
The timing could not have been better. Ajax, like Barcelona, had a passion for homegrown talent, and the talents that had just started to come into its first team turned out to be its best in a generation. And the ball skills Onana had honed at Barcelona were a perfect fit for his Ajax’s style.
Success quickly followed, as did strong performances against richer clubs in European competitions like the Champions League. By the summer of 2020, some of those teams had started to circle, offering Ajax millions for its young goalkeeper. Ajax declined to sell, confident the price for Onana, and its other young stars, would continue to rise.
And then, just as it had a few years earlier, it all stopped for Onana when his drug test came back positive. Onana appealed the one-year ban he was given, and European soccer’s governing body accepted his explanation.
But under soccer’s regulations, he was still responsible, and so the punishment, reduced to seven months, meant that starting in February 2021 Onana was effectively ostracized from soccer. When his Ajax teammates lifted the trophy that spring to celebrate a title to which he had contributed, he wasn’t allowed to enter the stadium to watch.