Dembele, failure and all the wrong decisions

Ousmane Dembele should have said “No.”

This is a challenge, because it’s Barça. Messi is there, the glitter is there, the glory is there. You have shot up like a rocket, from a wide-eyed kid making first-team football at Rennes to driving the train and exploding into the spotlight at Dortmund. You’re a goddamn boss. When the Catalan giants come calling, of course you’re going to answer. You’d be a fool not to. Look at me, people!

Dembele should have said “No.”

Whether he is a failed transfer or not depends on your worldview. But Dembele is a failed transfer, for a great many reasons. Most fascinating is that people place the blame for him being a failed transfer at the player’s feet, which is an impressive mix of media outlets setting an agenda, supporter expectations, a massive price tag and a player who didn’t do his homework. Money does that. Look at Matthijs de Ligt, struggling at Juventus because he didn’t do his homework. Barcelona wanted him, and his game was perfect for the way that team played. All that he would have to do is what he did at Ajax, and there was a spot waiting for him. But his agent, Mino Raiola, did his job well. Really well. Too well. “Am I going to get my money, and am I going to start,” probably weren’t the most crucial questions for De Ligt, just as they weren’t for Dembele.

What Dembele should have asked was, “How are you going to use me?” He might have watched Valverde’s teams with Inaki Williams and been optimistic but he shouldn’t have been, because Valverde used Williams as a retriever. Kick the ball, chase it down, do something. Dembele is better than that. Dembele is also better than what Barça supporters want from him, which is a player who slots easily into the Masia fantasy structure of supporters, where you are a genius when genius calls, but all the other times you just protect the ball, and play short, simple, logical passes. No risk. Don’t screw this up, and stay out of Messi’s way. Be the exact great player you were at your previous club, but work flawlessly with Messi. Dembele is also better than he has been treated by supporters.

His life at Barça would have been different under Luis Enrique, different under Pep Guardiola. But he got Ernesto Valverde, a defensive-minded coach who is first worried about how not to concede. After that, he’d like to score some goals. The best thing for Dembele’s career would have been a bridge club, an upper-tier Premiership side or an Inter or Juventus, to ease into the madness, to understand the pressure and expectation absent the nest of pit vipers that is the Barcelona entorno. A move to one of those clubs would also have brought a different price tag than the one the Catalan Moneybags saw, the one they could pay because they had it thanks to the Neymar windfall.

But not only did Dembele not do his homework tactically, he didn’t do his homework psychologically or philosophically. Like it or not, Catalonia isn’t as enlightened as many might think. My most overt experience with racism came at Camp Nou, where a kid pointed at me and made monkey gestures to his father. Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton was greeted, during testing at Circuit de Catalunya, with folks in the stands wearing gorilla masks. And even if it isn’t overt racism, it’s a willingness to stereotype. Black players are talented, strong, fast, but kinda shiftless and lazy if you leave them to it. All it took was one late training for the rumors to start. Now, everything that Dembele does is blamed on his being up late, playing Fortnite. Injury? “Should have gone to bed.” “Why didn’t he eat better.” “It’s his entourage.” “What a waste of talent.”

Media sources were all too willing to play this up, and a young player’s moment of silliness became a narrative: the talented-but-shiftless black player who is ruining his own career. That is Dembele now, and people are going in for the kill. But what should he have done, what could he have done? Rolled into the team with the seriousness and diligence of a player willing to show he’s ready for a spot at the biggest club in the world? Rolled into the club as a black player in a game that is still racist, still all too willing to shove a black player into a hole? Money can make a young man not think the world is ready to treat him a certain way because of how he is. He can’t be as good. He has to be better, luckier, more durable, more everything. To counteract that a player needs poise, great advisers and a worldview grounded in reality. What 20-year-old has that kind of fortitude? Neymar was a freak, and even he didn’t have that kind of nous. Parties, his sister’s birthday, on-pitch ad breaks to show off new shoes. The NBA has former players come in and talk to newly rich 19-year-olds about life, expectation, about what is in store for them. It matters. Dembele should have gotten better advisers than his entourage.

But as a 20-year-old phenom who a club has just splashed 140 million on, how would YOU roll into a club? Doing what got you there, which is what he did. At Rennes he was durable, not missing a match. At Dortmund, he missed precious few. At Barça he broke right away and stayed broke, then broke again. Because supporters don’t understand injury and physiology and how muscles work, they think that you can pull a hamstring because you are eating pizza, that you can have a contact injury because you were up late, goofing off. If that was the case, Pique would be injured all the time, but he isn’t. Why? His physiology is different. Dembele should have understood but he’s 20, and suddenly has the world at his feet. How can we expect a psychological kid in that situation to be any different that we would have been?

Immaterial, because he cost 140m and is supposed to set the world on fire for that price. Damn him and his fragility, damn him for bringing it all on himself. This is what pizza and Fortnite get you.

In not asking “How are you going to use me,” Dembele failed himself because coming to a team with Messi, how did you think you were going to be used? Just watch Barça on TV. At Rennes, Dembele had the ball at his feet. At Dortmund, Dembele had the ball at his feet. Neymar at Barça had the ball at his feet. You would be crazy to not put the ball at the feet of a fast, dynamic, skillful, wildly creative, two-footed player, right? Except you’re Ernesto Valverde, and you have Messi. So you’re going to tell Dembele to find playing space somewhere, and do something. But this is Messi’s team, kid. You don’t have the keys.

Luis Enrique figured out pretty quickly that Neymar had to drive the attack, and that it could work perfectly for Messi and Suarez if he set things up that way. He won a treble. Valverde put Dembele on the wing and told him to chase the ball, just as he did with Williams. When Dembele ruptured his hamstring doing a backheel, it was all downhill from there.

Dembele should have said no.

Barça was going to chase him because he was the exact kind of player the club had lost, and one potentially even better in that he could do what he did from either side of the pitch. Wow. We’re in. But Barça, too, should have been smarter about spending its windfall, as people such as Sid Lowe noted. Instead they went out and acquired not one, but TWO ill-suited, poorly used players in Dembele and Phillippe Coutinho. Both have failed but because Coutinho stayed fit, his failure is seen at the fault of “stupid, stupid Valverde didn’t know how to use him.” Dembele’s failure is seen as on him. Should have been more serious, more professional, says the player kicked off the Chilean national team for being drunk. He needs to be more serious, says the tennis impresario. At the player’s latest injury, related to contact, it started anew with supporters. “He’s a failure, and he did it to himself. Screw him. I’m done with him.” Note the silence from teammates. His manager said in a recent interview that Dembele had been very serious, working hard and with diligence, that this latest injury was psychologically hard for the player, who had been doing everything right.

“Nah. Next time go to bed on time, punk.”

What’s next for Dembele? He comes back from the injury that will keep him from being sold or loaned in January, to wait out the clock until summer. No matter what he does, he is doomed at this club. Play brilliantly from February on, help the team win a treble and nobody will care until the next time he doesn’t do exactly what people expect. A golazo will be what he is supposed to do, a slack turnover his norm. “See?” Football is cruel. He will be sold in the summer, will go somewhere that will understand what they have and how to use it, and he will blossom. Maybe different physios will understand his body better, and work with him better. He won’t have a fanbase looking to get its 140 million worth, looking for perfection from a 20-year-old who can still barely believe where he is. But his time at Barça, a time marked by brilliant moments, stunning golazos, harbingers of a bright future and awful luck, will be seen as a complete failure.

Dembele should have said no. But Barça should never have asked him.

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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.