Amadou Onana, Red Devil thanks to his sister Melissa: ‘The Cinquantenaire Park was our hotspot’

At Anderlecht he did not get further than the provincial youth, but today Amadou Onana is staying with the Red Devils in Qatar, to shine at the football world championship. Thanks to the countless football matches in Brussels parks, but also to his sister Melissa, who tirelessly continued to promote him. “His story is truly a fairy tale.”

Young football talents are ready to succeed the so-called Golden Generation of the Red Devils. Among them Amadou Onana, a 21-year-old midfielder with Brussels roots. His selection comes as no surprise: he has been strong at his Premier League club Everton for some time and proved to be a revelation in his first games for the national team.

So it’s strange that such a whopper today as a teenager at Anderlecht didn’t get any further than the provincial youth at the Heysel. Also later, at Zulte Waregem things went wrong. “That difficult period shaped me to a great extent,” he says from his home in Manchester, relaxing on the sofa next to his older sister Melissa, 33, who is also his estate agent. She nods: “Actually, we should thank those clubs. It helped shape him into who he is now on the football field, and it clearly showed me that there is also a lot going on off the field. That is how I realized that you need a clear strategy if you want to develop a football career.”

© Belgaimage

| November 15, 2022: Amadou Onana at the training center of the Red Devils in Tubize.

Brother and sister have formed an unbreakable tandem since that difficult start. Melissa with a tireless drive at the wheel, continuing to promote Amadou. In the meantime, she expanded her brokerage activities and founded the brokerage agency Be The Future Management in Anderlecht. It already has about twenty players in its portfolio.

Amadou gave his first kicks against the ball in the Senegalese capital Dakar, where he was born to a Cameroonian father and Senegalese mother. Already at the age of six he traveled to Brussels every summer holiday to be with his father, who had his job here. “I always loved coming,” he says. “I then did football internships near Etterbeek, where we lived at the time. Even then I preferred to fill my days with playing football, playing football and playing football.”

During those Brussels summers, the bond with sister Melissa also grew. They have the same father, but different mothers. Melissa was born and raised in Brussels. “I was born in Elsene and over the years I have also lived in Laeken, Sint-Gillis, Molenbeek and in the Vlaamse Rand, in Wemmel.” Now she lives in Anderlecht. “Although I’m rarely in Brussels anymore due to the many travels, I still love the city. The multicultural character gives it extra beauty.”

During Amadou’s childhood summers in Brussels, Melissa spent as much time as possible with him. “Then we often went to the cinema and the Quick.” The then water amusement park Océade, on the Heysel, was also regularly on the program. “My best memory with Amadou in Brussels also depends on that, when he was very small. I often had to fish him out of the waves and take him on my back (laughs).”

Five languages

Around the age of twelve, Amadou came to Belgium with his mother, brother and sister. Looking for better living conditions, study opportunities and greater opportunities for a professional career in football. He studied at Saint Michael’s College in Etterbeek. Among other things, the language lessons went smoothly for him, so that he now speaks five languages ​​– Wolof (spoken in Senegal), French, Dutch, German and English. Ideal for an international sport such as football. The sport in which he also fully devoted himself to at school. “During every break, no matter how short, I was playing football. The teachers will remember that,” he laughs.

After school, the Brussels parks were the ideal playground. “I think I’ve shot in just about all the parks. The Cinquantenaire Park in particular was our hotspot.” He learned to fight for every ball against other talented ketjes, including a certain Alexis Saelemaekers – who now plays for AC Milan in Italy.

© Photonews.com

| Amadou Onana, just before his departure to Qatar: “Being there at the world championship is a dream come true, a reward for all the hard work.”

During his time in Brussels, Amadou was in puberty. Was he not sometimes the rebel? Not according to his sister. “He was never a tough kid,” she says. “He’s intelligent. If he knows why he has to do certain things, he does them. Even at a very young age, he was very responsible and kept his word. That, I think, is a big part of why he got to where he is today.”

Before coming to Brussels permanently, Amadou Onana had already joined the provincial youth of Anderlecht at the Heysel, and at the age of ten he had passed tests to be allowed to play with the national youth at Neerpede. Then he returned to Senegal. A subsequent test at the age of twelve did not end well. He ended up in the provincial series for two seasons. He then moved to White Star Brussels, where he gained his first experience at the national level. When that club went under, he had to move again. Zulte Waregem offered him shelter, but his talent remained heavily under the radar there. For a moment, it seemed as if his football career was over before it even got started.

Snapshot

Was he perhaps technically and in terms of mentality not yet top enough at that time, as has sometimes been suggested? Brother and sister shake their heads in surprise. “Look at the course I’ve covered, it makes it clear that my mentality is not a problem. And my technique? I think it wasn’t that bad, if you see where I am already,” Amadou responds. “That’s the past, we don’t regret anything,” says Melissa firmly. “Today I am even happy for all the obstacles we had to overcome, it made us stronger.”

“The past is the past,” says Jean Kindermans, head of the youth academy at Anderlecht. To immediately add: “These kinds of exceptional cases are typical of football, because those tests in youth are snapshots.” He refers to international examples, such as Robin van Persie and Franck Ribéry, but also to another Red Devil – Dries Mertens. Mertens was also not considered good enough as a youth player at Anderlecht, and later at AA Gent. “At that time with us, Amadou was not yet the player he is now. And the competition in his class was also huge, with toppers such as Yari Verschaeren.”

Kindermans looks back without any bitterness. “You can only be satisfied that the boy made it through a detour, his story is really a fairy tale. He has become a phenomenal player, whom I really enjoy. All praise and respect for his willpower and patience, and that of his sister of course.” Kindermans still remembers a conversation with Melissa Onana. “I was surprised by her determination and persuasiveness, her unwavering faith in her brother. She is a big driver of his career.” Or he hopes to get Onana back into the Lotto Park one day? “In the near future that will not work, but who knows, in a late phase of his career. Just like Jan Vertonghen is with us now.”

Onana started his rise to the top at Hoffenheim in Germany in 2017. From there it went to the first team of the German second division club Hamburg, where he played himself in the spotlight of bigger clubs. Lille, then the French national champion, came to take him away, and this year Everton put 40 million euros on the table for the 1m95 tall powerhouse with large lungs and finely strung feet. So it went quickly, as soon as he could go abroad.

Amadou owes in no small part to his sister, who set herself up as a self-made real estate agent, that he got that chance at all. “First I went to his training sessions as a big sister. But then I started filming his training sessions and matches, putting videos of his best actions on YouTube, making powerpoint presentations, reaching out to people in the football world… All with the aim of opening the necessary doors at clubs,” says Melissa . She immersed herself in that world, with which she did not have a strong affinity. “I see that as an advantage, it allows me to look at it with an objective view, without too many emotions involved.”

Why did she persist, despite the doubts of Belgian youth trainers? “Because Amadou showed tremendous determination,” she says. “Many young people dream about professional football in a superficial way and are blinded by Instagram videos and the urge for big cars. While you have to work very hard and make many sacrifices. When I felt how much he wanted to make this sport his life, I went for it.”

1821 Amadou Melissa Onana 1

©Kevin Parry

| Amadou and Melissa Onana.

That was far from self-evident, because Melissa not only had to combine her fledgling real estate activities with a job, she also developed serious health problems. She was treated for lymphoma cancer. She recovered, but still suffers from hereditary and chronic sickle cell disease, which is associated with anemia. “It causes tremendous pain.”

Because of all those problems, Amadou started training even harder. “Her perseverance is a huge source of inspiration,” he says. “Melissa taught me to always stay positive and focus on what is essential in life, family. The financial benefits of an existence as a top football player are also a source of motivation, in order to be able to pay for all medical treatments. Also for my mother (who suffers from a serious muscle disease, ed.), who left her life in Senegal to give me better opportunities. Moreover, she has played the role of mother and father for me.” Amadou no longer has contact with his father. “The same goes for me,” Melissa adds. “So please pay tribute to both our mothers: congratulations a elles!

Shark world

Over the years, Melissa grew in her role as a real estate agent and over time she decided to set up real estate agency Be The Future Management in Anderlecht with two friends, Geoffrey Hoogland and Sekou Kaba. Was she easily accepted as a woman in that world? “It really is a shark world, I have already dealt with sexist prejudice. As a woman, some say I would have a harder time getting into clubs, and would need a man to do so. But I have proven that I can open the doors of clubs on my own. The other women in this business are also doing very well, although there could be more.” For Amadou, the collaboration with his sister has already resulted in his first World Cup. What does that mean for him? “It’s a dream come true, a reward for all the hard work.”

Does he see himself, like many, as a successor to former Red Devil Marouane Fellaini, with whom he is compared because of his enormous duel power? Or does he see more in the comparison with the French-Senegalese icon Patrick Vieira, who regularly appears? “These are very big names, players for whom I have a lot of respect. But I am Amadou Onana.” It seems like a reference to the song of encouragement that Everton supporters have devised for him, to the tune of Rihanna’s hit ‘What’s my name?’: ‘Onana, that’s my name, Onana, that’s my name.’

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Amadou Onana Red Devil sister Melissa Cinquantenaire Park hotspot

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