Long Read: Onana's Perseverance And Pride

In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for last month's Premier League opener against Chelsea, Amadou Onana speaks in depth about his fascinating life journey and why "everything felt right" about joining the Blues this summer.

There is a saying in Wolof, the mother tongue of Amadou Onana, that particularly resonates with Everton's new recruit: Lu metti yàggul te ku muñ muuñ.

Whatever is painful does not last, and whoever perseveres smiles.

"I think that’s the best quote to represent me as a person and my journey," he explains. "I have always been a positive guy.

"I’ve been through a lot of things and that’s the thing that kept me alive, kept me going through those times."

The Belgium international, who this week shared a quiet meal with close friends to celebrate his 21st birthday, is a fascinating character, with a journey to match.

The rise has been rapid but not without struggle.

Now, however, after penning a five-year contract with the Blues, Onana's sights are firmly set on building a legacy with Everton.

Several factors influenced the midfielder's decision to commit his long-term future to L4, after being tracked by a host of top European clubs this summer, but, by listening to his intuition, he insists the choice became "easy".

"Everton's reputation as a big club and one that cares was an important point," he says. "Everything just felt right here.

"It’s hard to explain but I’m a guy who works with his feelings and I base decisions on that.

"The way people were talking to me, the way the manager was talking to me... Everything just felt ‘home’ straight away.

"I also watched the game at Goodison against Crystal Palace last season and it was just amazing. I wasn’t even there live and I had goosebumps watching the celebrations.

"That made me sit up and really see the passion these fans have for the Club. They don’t let players down.

"These were reasons why I chose Everton."

To deeper understand Onana's approach to life, you have to go back to his roots.

Born in Colobane, an area of Dakar — the capital of Senegal — Onana shared a large house with 14 members of his family, including his mother, aunt, siblings, cousins and grandparents.

"I had a sweet upbringing," he says, with a wistful smile. "I enjoyed it and I learned a lot about how life goes.

"Growing up where I grew up, people didn’t have much. I saw people struggling, eating breakfast but not knowing where their evening meal was going to come from.

"So, I always have that in my mind. I’d rather help people than be wasteful."

There is a striking maturity and sense of self-awareness in Onana's words, even more evident when he explains future plans to set up charities to help those less fortunate in Senegal.

One of the key figures in instilling those community values, he explains, was his grandfather.

"I learned everything from my grandpa — the values I have, the character I am, it all comes from him," says Onana, who, from the age of six, began visiting his father in Brussels, Belgium every summer.

Even then, football was at the forefront of his mind.

"I stayed in Senegal until I was 11," he explains. "My dad lived in Belgium — where he and my mother first met — and, as we got older, we decided that we wanted to stay there for school, but also for football, because I knew that I could have many, many opportunities to play football in Belgium.

Amadou Onana
Everything about Everton felt 'home' straight away. It just felt right here

"Me, my sister and my mum went out initially, then my brother joined us two years later after finishing school.

"It was a big change, because of the culture, the language... It was just very different.

"The way people are back in Senegal — everyone would live together, try to help each other, even if they don’t have much.

"We weren’t rich, but we would try every time to help each other.

"In Belgium, it felt like you were a bit more on your own. You have to learn about life on your own."

Nowadays, standing at 6ft 4in, Onana cuts an imposing but athletic figure, however he was a "small kid", with his mother even harbouring concerns over his slight frame until a significant growth spurt in his early teenage years.

Physical advantage or not, Onana's appetite to play football has been relentless for as long as he can recall.

“The most vivid memories of my childhood are playing in the streets with my friends," he says. "We would take two rocks and use them as goalposts and that was all we needed.

"I’d come home from school and I did my homework, because otherwise my mum wouldn’t let me out!

“So, I would do my homework real quick, then I was out playing football all evening.
"It was always football, right from the very beginning.”

Onana was naturally gifted in the classroom and despite speaking five languages fluently - Wolof, French, Dutch, German and English - counts maths as his favourite subject due to being able to apply logic and problem-solving skills.

But, ultimately, football was the undisputed passion and, when he moved to Belgium full-time as an 11-year-old, things started to become more serious.

After playing "more just for fun" in Senegal, Onana joined Anderlecht's famed academy system and there was an immediate buzz around his obvious talent.

Despite making a strong first impression - and playing almost every position on the pitch, including filling in as a goalkeeper for five games - Onana grew frustrated on his quest to progress through the ranks.

"I was playing in Anderlecht but in the ‘B’ team and there was a time where they wanted me in the ‘A’ team but I had to go back to Senegal," he explains.

"I came back and I kept trying to impress but they didn’t want me and I remember saying to my sister, like, in French we have a saying that says there are trains that only pass one time and if you miss it, then you’re smoked!

"That’s how I felt. I thought I had missed my chance, but my sister encouraged me to keep going, keep working.

"Those moments can be difficult because there are always people who will tell you that you might as well quit, you’re not good enough etc.

"As a young teenager, it’s hard to cope with those tough words, but, thanks to my will and also the support of my sister and the rest of my family, I just kept working through it."

Those football worries then paled into insignificance, when his sister, Melissa, who is now his agent, was diagnosed with cancer.

Onana's mother was struggling with her health, too, suffering the effects of Myasthenia gravis, a rare, long-term condition that causes weakness of the skeletal muscles.

"Everything seemed to happen in the same time and it was a really, really difficult time for me," he reflects.

“But that was and is my fuel — it’s extra motivation to give absolutely everything I have to succeed."

That favourite Wolof saying rang true.

He fought through the most difficult period of his life, and, with his sister now recovered and mother managing her condition, it paid off handsomely.

After subsequent spells with Belgian-based sides RWS Bruxelles and Zulte Waregem, Onana was handed a significant break when he signed for German side Hoffenheim in 2017.

It was another plunge into the unknown and a first-ever experience of living alone.

"The move from Belgium to Germany was the most difficult," he admits. "I’m a big family guy that grew up in a house with my whole family, so I was used to constantly being with other people.

"I moved to Germany on my own and doing everything on my own was just so different to me.

"Of course, I had the support of my family, but it was difficult at first not being around them.

"I knew I had to learn German and quickly.

"Firstly, because not many players could speak English and I had to adapt real quick. I had to learn their language so on the pitch it wouldn’t be a problem to speak to each other.

"It would also help me adapt in a new environment.

"It took me nearly five months. Dutch and German are quite similar languages and there are words that look alike, so that helped me.

"As tough as it was at the time, that experience ultimately helped me become who I am today."

Amadou Onana
I want to build something big here. I want to bring Everton back to where they belong

Following three years of development in Die Kraichgauer’s academy, Onana joined Hamburg in time for the 2020/21 season and immediately made a splash in the 2. Bundesliga, making 26 appearances in total and piquing interest of fans, media and scouts alike.

“Technically, Amadou has almost perfect prerequisites,” Hamburg’s Director of Sport Jonas Boldt said of the then-teenager. “He is fast, technically skilled, tall and strong in tackling.”

When Hamburg narrowly missed out on promotion to Germany’s top-flight, Onana moved to Ligue 1 club Lille in August 2021 and, once again, took little time to catch the eye.

The midfielder was a regular throughout the campaign, making 42 appearances across all competitions, including eight in the Champions League.

Onana’s form saw him called up into the Belgium senior squad in May this year, earning his first cap the following month against the Netherlands.

Of course, a move to Merseyside followed, bringing us to the present day and, despite only being introduced as an 81st-minute substitute for his Toffees debut at Aston Villa, the Blues midfielder quickly hit the headlines again.

"Rollercoaster... Definitely a rollercoaster!" he answers, when asked to summarise his first taste of the Premier League. "I had many, many emotions.

"The first game was special — wearing the Everton shirt for the first time, getting on the pitch for the first time in front of the fans.

"I can feel their energy and I’ve received so many messages on social media! It’d be impossible to read them all, but the support is massive.

"I keep saying it, but it is just very special.

"[My first appearance] went okay. I give everything and try to do my best every time I’m on the pitch.

"This is the kind of player I am. I like to take responsibility and try to make things better for my team.

"It’s a special feeling, playing in front of packed-out stadiums, but I just play like I train.

"I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I don’t fear pressure. I take it on and move forward.

"I saw during that [Aston Villa] game we struggled at times to carry the ball out effectively and I just tried my best. Unfortunately, on one occasion it ended up me losing the ball, but I think it’s part of the game.

"I could never blame anyone else for trying to do the right thing.

"After that, I just kept going, like I always do, took the ball again and thankfully managed to create something.

"In the final 10 minutes I think we had four chances to score, so that game could have ended up different, but it wasn’t to be."

Everton’s recent record of hosting Belgian talent has been impressive, with Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku all having enjoyed success on domestic and international fronts during their time in Royal Blue.

It is something Onana, who had a discussion with Lukaku before sealing his move to the Toffees, is well aware of and keen to continue.

“There was a lot of respect for this club from everyone I spoke to.” he reveals. “I know about the history of Everton — I knew before coming it’s a big, big club.

"Those guys have been successful and why can't I continue that?

"My first memories of watching Everton are back in Senegal, because I watched a lot of Premier League games as a kid.

"Fellaini was here back then. He was a very, very good player who did a lot for Everton and my goal has to be to do as much as him, or even better.

"I spoke to Romelu, too. He told me that I’d feel at home because it’s like a big family. That is exactly what I have found.

"He knew I would enjoy it here and there wasn't a doubt in his mind. I was like, ‘Aight, let’s do this, big bro!’"

Onana, who became the 947th player to represent Everton when he made his debut at Villa Park, is now determined to play an integral role in a bright new chapter in the Club's history under manager Frank Lampard.

Amadou Onana
I like to take responsibility. I don't fear pressure

He is also relishing the opportunity to set longer-term goals, having completed the past two seasons with two different clubs.

"I’ve always wanted to play in England," he insists. "That’s not a secret.

"I’m here now — and Everton feels special.

"I want to build something big here, because I know this is a big club.

"The past couple of years have been tough, but I want to bring Everton back to where they belong.

"I get chills thinking about playing at Goodison for the first time, especially after the reaction I got when people saw me arriving at the stadium on the first day of the season.

"That reaction in the stands was crazy. It’s an incredible feeling to be made so welcome and I was very grateful.

"The thought of playing there gets me really fired up.

"I’m ready to go."