André Onana Makes Manchester United Schadenfreude Taste A Little Less Delicious
10:09 AM EST on December 1, 2023
Manchester United led Galatasaray 2-0 in the 18th minute of Wednesday's Champions League group stage match. By the halftime whistle, the score was 2-1, after a nightmare of a boner from keeper André Onana gifted the Turkish hosts a goal that halved United's advantage. The visitors got their two-goal lead back in the 55th minute, and then gifted Galatasaray with another nightmare boner from Onana, and then gave up a late equalizer. The 3-3 draw likely seals their fate in the competition, where only an unexpected series of events in the final matchday will save them from an embarrassing group-stage exit.
The above should sound familiar to anyone who's been keeping up with the latest in United's umpteenth post-Fergie descent into Red Devil hell. What should also sound familiar are the accompanying howls. There are howls from United fans, who, even after spending so much time down there over the past decade, still scream and wail like a first-timer with every lick of the underworld's flames. And then there are howls from schadenfreude enthusiasts, who cry tears of mirth and joy with each new debacle.
This time around, I find myself a bit torn. On one hand, United gagging up two two-goal leads against Galatasaray, and potentially finishing last in the group—behind fucking Copenhagen!—is objectively hilarious. It's funny because it's United, the single most enjoyable big club to see suffer. It's funny because it's Galatasaray, always a purveyor of lineups heavy with Let's Remember Some Guys–caliber big-team washouts (Wednesday's XI featured no less than seven bona fide Guys). It's funny because it's Copenhagen, because it's fucking Copenhagen!
On the other hand, it kind of sucks that the man at the center of Wednesday's loss was Onana. Onana is a very cool and genuinely unique goalkeeper. He's a legit genius as a passer and has been known to play with almost suicidal abandon when he ventures up the pitch to realize his outfielder dreams. Or at least Onana was that very cool and unique goalkeeper, before he joined United over the summer.
There are many reasons to root for Onana. His journey has been an impressive one. He left his native Cameroon as a 14-year-old to join Barcelona, and left Barcelona for Ajax at 18 in search of a clearer path to the first team. After a couple seasons with Ajax's B team, he was promoted to the senior squad and quickly took the starting job. With Ajax, he won three Eredivisie titles, got to one Europa League final, and was a key player in that unforgettable Cinderella run to the Champions League semis in 2019.
Onana's precipitous rise was almost derailed in 2020, after he tested positive for a banned substance. Onana, Ajax, UEFA itself, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport all agreed that Onana's taking of a harmless diuretic was a simple mistake—instead of the over-the-counter painkiller he'd meant to take to help with a headache, he'd accidentally taken a similarly named pill that had been prescribed to his wife after childbirth. But it didn't matter; UEFA still suspended the keeper from the sport for a year, which was reduced to nine months after appeal.
Thankfully, Onana got his career right back on track once the suspension was up. He took the next step in his career by leaving Ajax for Inter in 2022. In his one season there, Onana won the Coppa Italia and made it all the way to the Champions League final, where the Italian club fell in a tight battle to Manchester City.
Onana's impressive season with Inter convinced Manchester United to shell out some €50 million to make the 27-year-old Cameroonian their new man between the sticks. The move reunited Onana with Erik ten Hag, who guided Ajax to that UCL semifinal run in 2019. Sadly, the thing that happens to damn near everyone who goes to United has happened to Onana.
Onana's two blunders against Galatasaray only extend what has already grown into a long list of fuckups by the Cameroonian. Here he is letting a tame Leroy Sané shot slip underneath him in United's 3-4 loss against Bayern Munich in September:
Here he is making an ill-advised pass that forces Casemiro into a last-ditch tackle, for which the Brazilian would get sent off in United's 2-3 loss to Galatasaray in October:
Here he is letting a tame Mathias Jensen shot slip underneath him in to give Brentford an early lead that a late Scott McTominay double would eventually bail United out of:
Here he is just kind of hopping onto his ass to allow Nottingham Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi an open net to shoot into:
This sucks! Onana seems like a nice guy. (We'll make an exception for his showing up of Harry Maguire that one time, since it seems to have been an outlier.) He plays in a cool way, even if his flaws (erratic positioning, intermittent moments of overconfidence, terrible command of the penalty box when it comes to aerial balls) have always made him prone to howlers. He's bravely and commendably shown his face and accepted blame when his gaffes have caused United to drop points, and he's not been one to call attention to himself when he's saved United's ass either. He's a really good player in a position where blacks and Africans are traditionally underrepresented due to racist stereotypes about who "can" or "should" play where. All of that makes him eminently likable, which only makes watching him make mistake after inexplicable mistake, each one revealing a shattered confidence whose cracks are only deepened with every new error, more sad than funny. Look how sad he was after Wednesday's loss!
Onana isn't United's only cool and/or likable player, but there's something especially depressing in seeing him be the cause of the Red Devils' otherwise welcome woes. Here's hoping Onana individually can turn things around soon, and that someone else can take their turn as the main attraction of the United shitshow, so that I can go back to laughing at them without that pesky little feeling of pity undermining what should be unalloyed pleasure.