The last time Inter Milan played in the Uefa Champions League final, back in 2010, they had a Cameroonian in the team.
Samuel Eto’o Fils’ brief in that game was a bit different from what he was tasked with in the two previous Champions League finals that he’d been privileged to play in.
In 2006 against Manchester United, Eto’o, the sharp end of a ferociously attacking Barcelona unit, was the go-to-man for goals, reprising that role for the Blaugrana — also versus United — in the 2009 final.
Eto’o, on both occasions, delivered with aplomb, scoring in each game as Barcelona conquered Europe a second time and then a third.
One year after the second of those games, Eto’o lined up for Italian side Inter when they faced Bayern Munich in Madrid for a taste of Champions League glory. He did feature in their offensive setup, but only on the right side of attack, with Argentinean Diego Milito assigned the lead role upfront.
And under Jose Mourinho, a manager who expects even his most advanced forwards to dig in defensively, Eto’o had to adjust his game and adapt to Inter’s cautious, more restrained approach.
That wasn’t too much of an ask, however. Eto’o had done just that throughout the campaign — most notably in the semi-final trip to Barcelona, the four-time African Player of the Year’s former employers — and Mourinho only expected him to do so for just one more game.
“Consider it done,” Eto’o must have said.
A willing wingman to Milito — who, true to form, scored the two goals that secured a famous for the Nerazzurri — Eto’o was all Mourinho needed him to be that night in Madrid.
Thirteen years later, Inter return to the Champions League final, having booked a June 10 date against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Eto’o, now retired, was present to see his old club successfully wrestle and overcome city rivals AC Milan for a place in the final. As he watched with delight, one particular player, Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana Onana, caught the eye of Eto’o.
Eto’o has known the 27-year-old for quite some time, dating back to 2006 when the latter joined the Samuel Eto’o Academy in his native Cameroon. Four years later, Onana was on his way to Barcelona, just around the time Eto’o was on his way out.
No doubt, though, that Eto’o would have keenly monitored Onana’s trajectory, even after the goalkeeper moved from Barcelona’s youth ranks to complete his apprenticeship at Dutch outfit Ajax Amsterdam.
And especially as the present head of Fecafoot, the Cameroonian football federation, after his election to the office in December 2021, has Eto’o had extra reason to be interested in the fortunes of Onana, then the Cameroon senior team’s No.1.
Less than a year into his tenure, though, Eto’o found himself at the centre of a storm that had Onana as one of the feuding parties; contending at the other end was Rigobert Song, a contemporary of Eto’o’s and a national footballing legend.
Song was appointed by Eto’o after Cameroon could only finish third as hosts of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), guiding the team to the Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
When the tournament commenced, Onana took his place as the team’s starting goalkeeper, debuting at the Mundial in Cameroon’s opening 1-0 loss to Switzerland.
Between that game and the next (versus Serbia), however, issues regarding Onana’s goalkeeping style brought a difference in opinion between him and Song. The ensuing clash of egos saw Onana dropped for Cameroon’s second group game, and for the remainder of the tournament.
The decision to send Onana home — endorsed and communicated by Fecafoot — couldn’t have been an easy one for Eto’o to make. In the end, though, he was left with little choice but to back his man — and that man wasn’t Onana.
“For me, it’s just a matter between the player and his coach,” Eto’o said, after the Milan-Inter game mentioned earlier.
“When the latter tells me he’s happy with Onana, he won’t have any problems. I have to be a solution for the coach, not the other way around.”
Barely a month later, Onana announced his retirement from international football.
His relationship with the national team — like Eto’o’s, in his day — had always been complicated, as you’d recall he turned down the chance to be at the 2017 Afcon, which Cameroon ended up winning with his cousin, Fabrice Ondoa, in goal.
A seemingly contrite Onana made himself available afterwards, but this — such a chastening episode on the biggest stage of them all — was seemingly the last straw.
Onana channelled his attention and energies into consolidating his position as Inter’s No.1, helping the team towards achieving its goals.
And he has done just that.
Napoli’s relentless run and blinding brilliance this season has denied Inter the chance to reclaim, on the first attempt, the Serie A title lost to Milan last year, but the three-time European champions could still finish the season with a flourish.
In the league, they’re well-placed in what is now essentially a three-team battle to finish second. And the itch for silverware has already been scratched a bit by January’s Supercoppa Italiana success over Milan. One more trophy, the Coppa Italia, could end up in their cabinet should Inter triumph over Fiorentina later this month.
Then comes the big one: that Champions League final date with City.
Simone Inzaghi’s team are on course for a Treble this season, even if not one as ‘perfect’ as that which was secured the last time the club won the Champions League, during Eto’o’s time at the Giuseppe Meazza.
Inter don’t lack attacking talent — Lautaro Martinez is on fire, Romelu Lukaku is only warming up, while Edin Dzeko keeps rolling back the years — but Onana could yet have a big say in reaching the club’s end-of-term targets, and there has been plenty of evidence to suggest he’s in the mood.
A very bad day at the office in their most recent league game, away to champions Napoli, aside, Inter had won their previous eight games in all competitions, seven of which Onana appeared in; he only conceded in one of those, the 3-1 victory over top four challengers Lazio.
Onana has been in especially fine form in Europe, leading the Champions League in saves made (45) and clean sheets collected (8). In the semis, he went toe-to-toe with the equally remarkable Mike Maignan of Milan in a bid to become only the second Black goalkeeper since Dida (of Milan) to grace the Champions League final, after Edouard Mendy for Chelsea in 2021.
Onana, from that battle of wits and reflexes, came up tops, and now looks forward to arguably the biggest game he’d ever play in. And when he does take to the pitch in Istanbul on that grand occasion, Onana would have come a long way from the depths to which he plunged after a wholly accidental error saw him cop a lengthy doping ban just when he was about entering his prime.
By the time he returned from that exile, Onana had lost his place in Erik ten Hag’s Ajax team, thus feeling the need to move to relaunch his career. Eto’o, apparently, gave Onana a helpful nudge towards Lombardy when the younger man appeared to drag to his feet over the transfer.
“Andre wasn’t very convinced about coming to Inter,” Eto’o claims.
“I advised him to say yes, that it was a step forward, and today I’m glad I did: he’s about to play a Champions League final; it’s not something that happens to all players.”
It certainly isn’t something that happens to too many African goalkeepers.
Only two — Mendy and Zimbabwean Bruce Grobbelaar — have ever played in the game that decides the winner of the European Cup/Champions League, and that’s a very exclusive company Onana — who has already experienced a Europa League final (2017), also coming within seconds of a Champions League final four years ago — is less than three weeks away from joining.
And even against the likes of Erling Haaland, Onana — “so good he was named twice,” to borrow from the famous Jay-Jay Okocha chant — would fancy his chances.
Eto’o would be watching, possibly in one of the plush seats at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, hoping Inter win and that Onana — who he described before last year’s World Cup as “one of the three best goalkeepers in the world… [and maybe] the best of them all” — makes a big impact.
Eto’o himself had a moment of that sort in the 2010 game, when he picked up the ball in the middle of the park with about 20 minutes to go and sprayed a pass wide to the advancing Milito. Inter’s scoring hero took possession, turning Bayern centre-back Daniel Van Buyten one way and then other, before rifling in the result-affirming second goal.
Could Onana, perhaps, come up with his own crucial attacking contribution?
As good as he is with his feet — that element of his game Song wanted tamed, remember? — don’t put it beyond Onana to utilise that specific skill — which Eto’o describes as “special”, by the way — to potent effect.
But, hey, even if all he ends up offering is no more than plain old, solid goalkeeping, Onana could still lend a great hand — literally, yes — to the cause.
Inter may not need much more.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks