Ajax celebrated becoming Dutch champions last weekend, but as the songs were sung and the party got underway, there was someone missing. Goalkeeper Andre Onana, who played every minute of every game until Jan. 31, who has still played more minutes than all bar four footballers in the Ajax squad, the title very much his, was not there. He would have liked to be, but he wasn't sure he was allowed, and so he stayed away, isolated and alone as he has been for three months. And those months that are still to come.
Onana, who turned 25 at the beginning of April, is likely to leave at the end of the season, Ajax have said. And with clubs in Germany and England interested, the Amsterdam outfit would like to move on. But that's not why he was absent from his side's title celebrations. The reason is that one morning last October, he woke up with a headache and reached for an aspirin, which turned out not to be an aspirin at all, but the Furosemide that had been prescribed to his pregnant wife. The packets aren't so different -- nor are the pills -- and so, Onana says, he accidentally took the wrong thing.
That's his version of events, and it's a version accepted by UEFA. They concluded that Onana had not tried to cheat; they also concluded that they had to ban him anyway. It is a player's duty, they insist, to ensure that no banned substance enters their bodies. A diuretic, Furosemide is not a performance-enhancing drug, but it can be used as a masking agent and is on UEFA's list of prohibited substances. He was handed by a 12-month ban. Had they judged that he deliberately cheated, it could have been four years.
Onana said that he "respected" the UEFA appeals body, but didn't agree with their decision, which he described at the time as "excessive and disproportionate as it has been acknowledged by UEFA that it was an unintentional mistake." Twelve months is a fifth of his professional career so far; Ajax managing director Edwin van der Sar released a statement in which he called it "a terrible setback for Andre himself and for us as a club."
This is the second time Onana has gone a long spell without playing: having come through the Samuel Eto'o Foundation in Cameroon, he was at Barcelona as a kid when the club was punished for violating FIFA Article 19, which regulates the signing of international players under the age of 18. Like all the kids at La Masia with him, Onana went 18 months without playing a competitive game.
At least he could train after that; at least, then, they were all in it together, although it effectively resulted in the breakup of a generation as players departed the club. This time, Onana is on his own. UEFA bans do not just prevent players from playing; they prevent them from engaging in all football-related activity. He's not allowed at Ajax; not their training grounds, not their team facilities. It doesn't even matter if the team is there or not. And this may just be the most significant element of all, one that effectively makes the ban more than 12 months, extending and deepening its impact, which is already "huge" not just on a player's career, in the words of Vereniging Van Contractspelers (VVCS), the Dutch players' union, but also a player's welfare.
"The suspension in itself is disproportionate, but the idea that the player may not even train with the rest of the team during the suspension is completely incomprehensible," said the VVCS. "This injustice, which has no added value and leads to the unnecessary isolation of professional footballers, must also be urgently reversed."
It is hard not to agree. It's hard to see any real justification for the implementation of a rule that goes beyond actually playing the game in the first place -- one argument goes that otherwise, a player who is not a regular starter effectively goes without punishment -- and it's hard to understand why it is so rarely questioned. Perhaps this will help. It is a perverse, and almost cruel, punishment. It's a largely pointless one, too; it's also difficult to see what gives the authorities the jurisdiction to impose limitations beyond matches.
This isn't just about doping offences; it's about all sorts of bans in which it can often feel like players are held to standards the rest of the game doesn't seem to feel the need to meet.
When Luis Suarez was banned after the 2014 World Cup for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, the Uruguayan striker was not allowed to engage in any "football-related" activity. The ban didn't extend to making an €80 million transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona -- business is business, after all -- but it did mean that he couldn't be presented, he couldn't train with his teammates and he couldn't go to the stadium to see them play. In theory, he couldn't go to watch a kids' game either. Think about that for a minute: imagine you have a small son or daughter and they have a game on Saturday, only their dad isn't allowed to go and watch.
Suarez worked alone, hidden. A secrecy surrounded his location. When Kieran Trippier was banned for breaking regulations on gambling, he was not just given a 10-week ban, but prevented from training with his teammates.
At least, in theory he was. When FIFA momentarily suspended the sanction -- he returned to face Sevilla FC -- then confirmed it again, Atletico Madrid interpreted their judgement as allowing Trippier to return to work if not play, against the wishes of the FA. They knew it wasn't clear-cut and that they were pushing it, so he joined the group quietly. There were no photos, no reports and no word from the training ground until the ban was actually over, at which point the club admitted yeah, he's been here all this time.
Most won't take that risk, including Onana and Ajax. However unjust they consider the ban, the power doesn't lie in their hands. Let's assume for a moment that Onana is guilty, that he did knowingly take Furosemide. Let's assume even that he did so to mask something else. Let's assume all of that -- none of which even those who punished him believe -- let's assume he is entirely guilty, this question still remains: why does the ban go beyond the pitch? What is really gained?
A 12-month ban on any football-related activity is effectively longer than that when it comes to playing. It could be legitimately argued that those who break rules should not be supported, looked after, but at a time when there is a greater awareness than ever before of players' mental wellbeing, is willfully isolating them really the answer?
Ajax's players wore Onana's shirt as they ran onto the pitch to face PSV Eindhoven in the cup after the ban was confirmed in early February. The club have talked about supporting him -- Lassina Traore also wore Onana's jersey during the title celebrations last weekend -- but it is natural that a distance has opened up, that relationships change, that a player ends up alone when he's forced to stay away.
An appeal awaits, too -- Onana is taking his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). It's part of the reason why there is such a determination to stick absolutely strictly to the ban, and to be seen to do so, as well as explaining why there's some kind of secrecy around something that should be natural: a footballer doing football things, a person forming part of a group to which he has contributed. Onana isn't sure that he can't be part of the celebrations; he does, though, fear that it could be held against him.
(That CAS appeal may also impact upon his future: if the ban is shortened and he was to become available again for Ajax, it is more likely that he would stay.
In the meantime, like all players in situations like this, Onana makes plans of his own, removed from the routine, the team -- the very thing that most footballers say makes it all worthwhile. He trains with a goalkeeper coach recommended to him by his agent. He could work at the club's HQ, but not with his teammates, and not at the times when there is anyone else there. So instead, he makes his way to a small amateur club in Amsterdam, unseen by anyone and everyone reluctant to admit where it is, the club keeping silent. He's keeping quiet, too. His diet has been altered, and fitness work is conducted at a gym at home with a personal trainer of his own, a lifelong friend who he's worked with before -- although it is coordinated with Ajax's staff.
And so it goes, a certain absurdity to it all, as if this was a state secret, as if Onana was a "non-person." Isolated he works, waits and watches on television as his teammates celebrate the title he won too.