Ousmane Dembélé: the €105m victim of football’s fat greasy hands
Barcelona’s young French forward has been caught up in a world of endless friction
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembélé sits on the bench during the La Liga match against Rayo Vallecano at the Vallecas stadium at the beginning of November. Photograph: Benjamin Cremel/AFP/Getty Images
Sympathy for Ousmane Dembélé : looking from a distance at the struggles of the world’s most destructively overpriced 21-year-old footballer, it is hard to detect a great deal of this out there right now.
This week Dembélé’s troubled time at Barcelona reached another minor point of crisis. The player and his agents were called into a meeting with the club hierarchy, where Dembélé was urged to pull his socks up and the club hierarchy was urged to stop leaking stories to the press, a story that was immediately leaked to the press.
This is of course nothing new. Football has always eaten its young, and the Camp Nou has always been a hard place to go. Like Dembélé, Diego Maradona was also a stripling when he signed for Barcelona back in 1982. And like Dembélé he found it ruinously hard.
Early on Maradona raged against the manager Udo Lattek, who insisted he kicked medicine balls around for hours on end, the bigger the fixture coming up, the heavier the medicine balls. Maradona struggled with Catalan culture, struggled with his “imbecile” of a chairman, who constantly briefed against him. He struggled with the overly physical Barcelona style.
Eventually his ankle was snapped (“it sounded like a piece of wood splitting”) in a horrible challenge by Andoni Goikoetxea. After writhing in agony for a few moments the most expensive footballer in the world was eventually carried off the Camp Nou pitch on a blanket and driven to hospital in a small borrowed van after it turned out there were no ambulances.
Compare this, if you will, to the case of Dembélé, whose own experience at Barcelona has involved being ferried into town like a junior princeling of the intergalactic regal elite, transferred from seven-star sealed interior to elite training complex via helicopter gunship dressed only in yak-fur robes and a solid gold hat. It isn’t fashionable to feel sorry for Dembélé in these circumstances, to accept a 21-year-old multimillionaire might feel lonely or lost in Catalonia. At the very least surely Dembélé has a man to do that for him, a team of junior aides whose duty it is to look out of the window with a sad expression, to take shifts wandering disconsolately from room to room in his shuttered and gated mansion.
If so they will have been working overtime. It is 15 months now since Dembélé was plucked out and beamed down at the Camp Nou for a fee of €105 million. Since when he has played 90 minutes just four times and scored 10 goals. Information from Football Leaks tells us Dembélé has been paid €17 million in basic wages in this time, with €10 million siphoned off to “intermediates”, transformed in not much more than a year from promising Rennes teenager to one-man sporting mega-industry.
At moments like these football looks like a real-time social experiment, a quest to find out what we can do to these human beings, how much of this irradiating weirdness a 21-year-old athlete can take. What shapes will it bend him into, what wounds will it gouge out?
Dembélé had started the season well before he was dropped. He even lit up a one-sided Clasico last month, passing beautifully, surging away from defenders with such easy grace it isn’t hard to see how with some time to steep and strengthen he really could bloom into a headline star of the next decade. Late on he did he something horrible to Nacho: turning, twisting back and then just easing past his man in a way that left Nacho looking lost, baffled, confused as to his basic purpose in all this wide green space.
But something hasn’t been right. Bad vibes have been present from the beginning. There have been reports of turning up late for training, of going missing in club hours. The talk is of a bad attitude, of abandoned Spanish lessons, poor diet. Don Balon called Dembélé “Sad, apathetic, unwilling and excessively individualistic”, suggest he goes to bed in the wee hours, a devotee of “the console and fast food”.
What to make of this? How seriously to take what sound like some fairly off-the-shelf, and indeed uncomfortably generic criticisms of a young man living abroad without his family for the first time? Who is really looking after this precious, superheated 21-year-old?
The Dembélé story has always been a saga of interests and agents and endless friction among the Dembélé sporting-industrial complex. He fell out with Rennes in the process of moving from youth to first team, fell out with Rennes again when he left, and fell out with Dortmund when he left them.
But then football has nagged and snapped and grabbed at Dembélé with its fat greasy hands from the start, to the extent Dortmund actually praised him for his steadfastness in refusing the various big money offers during his very brief time as a shooting star at Rennes.
And so we hear he might be off again, out there being monetised once more like no other 21-year-old talent has ever been monetised before. There is a suggestion Barcelona might finance a move to bring Neymar back by shifting Dembélé on, emphasising the basic pointlessness of the entire exercise: Neymar moves to Paris Saint-Germain to please a Qatari sport-washing project. Dembélé is uprooted in return for strangulating amounts of money. Everyone stagnates, everyone treads water, everyone gets paid. Liverpool has been suggested a possible destination for Dembélé, a sensational signing should Jürgen Klopp manage to pull it off.
For now the ballad of Ousmane Dembélé will remain a story that only really reveals its sadness in outline. Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Who actually thinks it could be a good idea to hurl such vast, disorienting skips full of money at a teenager, then expect him not to be alarmed by this? Is there any point in even asking these rather old fashioned-sounding questions?
We will, of course, find out. Huge amounts of additional cash will now be thrown at the problem, with all the usual cuts and bonuses. And in the end flux is good. Moves are good. Everyone wins here – everyone, that is, who matters. - Guardian