Dembele, culture and fit

A lot has been going on in the world of willowy French whizzes. Lots of nattering about puntuality, professionalism, off-pitch stuff amid a — frankly — gross campaign against the player by the two Barça dailies, Sport and Mundo Deportivo. They are even noting what he is wearing to matches now, which is ridiculous.

Pique has come out and said the club needs to help him achieve his best, but charity begins at home. Puyol later said essentially the same. Yet in thinking more deeply about the contretemps, not everything is as simple as it seems. Did Barça screw this transfer up?

Zach Lowy (@zachlowy on Twitter) produced a thought-provoking thread yesterday that looked at the background of Dembele, street ball on hardscrabble pavement, a constant fight to get to where he wanted to be and how the factors around that upbringing relate to his assimilation at Barça.

Lowy opines that Dembele had the dream of playing for Barça, but didn’t have the cultural background that allows him to fit in seamlessly. And we should allow for that in our assessments of him. His football youth stressed individuality and freedom, where La Masia stresses unselfishness and teamwork. Fans and journalists should not only recognize those differences and his struggle to make it to Barça, but apply some of those lessons to our own lives as they relate to how we assess the behavior of such a young talent, and chill the hell out.

In Damian Hughes’ fantastic book The Barcelona Way, in which he delves into Barça and the factors that generate such consistent success, he identifies Barça as a commitment culture. The culture is the thing, falling on the nurture side of the divide, where Dembele right now is on the nature side of things.

Learning, repetition, understanding. Even deeper than that is how many transfers want to come to Barça, and pretty much only Barça. That, too, is a commitment. “I want that club.” Everything about life in blaugrana is about a particular Way, a manner of doing things. Zlatan Ibrahimovic chafed at that direction, scoffing at the “choirboys” who did exactly what they were told, without question or fuss. Commitment.

One passage in Hughes’ book stands out in particukar, as it relates to Dembele:

Within the cultural DNA of Barcelona, the most important daily activities, repeatedly enforced, soon became standard practice. Plauers are expected to arrive an hour before they are due to train. ‘Punctuality, as an representation of being mentally prepared, is strictly enforced,’ recounts Guardiola’s assistant, Manuel Estiarte.

An hour before. It’s culture. The rondos are culture. The danger of realizing a dream is often failing to understand exactly what that dream entails. So many things point to the reality that club and player didn’t do their homework before the transfer. In other words, Dembele is a very poor cultural fit.

If training is scheduled for noon, and you arrive at 11:50, most people would think they were not only on time, but early. At Barça, you’re 50 minutes late.

When Lowy references the cultural differences that can hamstring a talent such as Dembele, this is one.

While interviewing candidates for a position at my office, there were a number of them who were talented, but who wouldn’t have made a good cultural fit. But there was one in particular who was immensely talented and brilliant, so much so that even though the fit wasn’t right at the moment, it was worth the (ultimately successful) risk that the individual would assimilate. Companies do it all the time. Football clubs look at players, their behavior, try to suss the psychology behind an athlete. When a deadline is looming and a giant wad of cash is burning a hole in a club’s pocket, decisions must be made.

Some point to the fact that Dembele forced his way out of a club as a negative, or some sort of indicator. So did Mascherano and Abidal, and they assimilated perfectly. Ter Stegen arrived at Barcelona ready to hit the ground running. He was already learning Spanish, already working to fit into the culture. The German keeper is an exemplar of a new transfer’s behavior. Umtiti came to the club and seamlessly integrated. What makes Dembele different? Youth? Background? Ultimate commitment?

The Barça history is festooned with players whose professionalism was less than exemplary. Romario, Ronaldinho and Neymar are three notable examples. But over time, the supporters and the ever-present entorno have become less tolerant as the stakes rise. Imagine a player nightclubbing as Ronaldinho did in the here and now. Neymar jetted off every year to spend a birthday with his sister and got slammed as unprofessional. Everything is different.

Dembele cost Barça 140m. That a player that expensive would seem to be such a bad initial cultural fit should raise eyebrows. Dembele is as he is. If he wants to make it at Barcelona, he is going to have to be as he isn’t, is going to have to learn to assimilate in a way necessary to thrive at that club. Messi, Suarez, Pique, Busquets, legends of the game, assimilate. Part of what football training and that ladder from youth divisions to professional ones does is prepare a player for an increasingly regimented life. It’s important to prepare an athlete for a demanding professional life.

Messi, Busquets, Sergi Roberto and the other Masia graduates have had the advantage of being raised in that environment, where “on time” is an hour before training starts. Dembele hasn’t. But a player has to learn, has to understand what is important, what is necessary. Media critters talk about “last chances,” and nonsense transfer rumors pop up surrounding a player in British tabloids, that are dutifully picked up by outlets that should know better. But it feels like lots of people should know better.

The player should have known better, should have explored the culture. Ibrahimovic’s comments, even if you don’t read his book, make it pretty clear that Barça might not be the ideal club for free spirits of a certain type. The club should have known better. Technical staff almost certainly presumed that Dembele would be able to assimilate. You take the chance. In the world of stuff that doesn’t matter even as it does tangentially, WE should know better.

Will Dembele make it at FC Barcleona? No idea. But it will be a shame if club and player don’t try their best to make it happen, and an even worse shame if a bile-soaked environment helped to damage that success. Culture matters. So does commitment. Combine the two with a massive dose of history and challenges abound for the unwary.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.