He had been training with the full squad, at full speed all week and was included in the squad for the Bayern match. Still, when news came down that Ousmane Dembele had, after a long road back from his latest injury and the attendant surgery, received medical clearance, it was hard not to smile if you’re human and have a heart.
Unless you’re a culer.
Football loves a comeback from a hard-luck story.
Unless you’re a culer.
Giuseppe Rossi, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rozicky, the list goes on of players who we cheer when they return from injury struggles, and repeated ones. It’s a different story for Barça players, mostly. Rafinha, never the same after that awful Nainggolan tackle, “wasn’t good enough anyway. Sell.” Umtiti, felled by a bad knee has gone from top 5 CB to a detested wastrel. Jokes are cracked about Dembele injuring himself in the pre-match warmup or something equally heartbreaking, all of which makes me wonder just what is wrong with us that we can’t muster the fundamental human decency to wish someone well, to be happy that something good is, might be, finally happening for a player who deserves nice things.
We all know the story of his coming to Barcelona in a hasty move for more money than should been spent, or just the right amount for his massive up side. Depends on who you ask. We all saw the backheel in open space that put paid to his hamstrings the first time, then the multiple injuries and comebacks. He overslept and missed a training and, in an incident amplified by Catalan media and seized upon by club supporters, he became a lazy, unprofessional n’er-do-well who brought those injuries upon himself. And folks acted like it was their money that was used to acquire him.
And now, after a heartbreaking setback in training from a long-term injury that required yet another surgery, here he is, just in time for the biggest match of the Barça season, against Bayern Munich. If you were writing a Hollywood movie, he would come on late as a sub, match in the balance, to score the winning goal. Real life isn’t as kind or as interested in happy endings, even as his receiving medical clearance is, for many and certainly for him and those who care, happy ending enough.
What makes so many so angry about Ousmane Dembele? He’s a talented winger with a laconic mien that might seduce people into thinking he’s lazy because he’s laid back. He eats right, works his ass off, must have an unflinchingly positive mental attitude to keep coming back from all this and smiling through training as he works, and so many still seem to expect the worst from him, to begrudge any good news. Yesterday the club released a segment from training of Dembele off on a mazy solo dribble, breaking down Suarez like a cheap IKEA bookcase, reducing Busquets to an ineffectual lunge as he danced past him. But as you watched, it was also easy to imagine him doing that in a match and Barça Twitter exploding in rage because he won’t pass the ball.
That’s Dembele’s world. He just wants to play. With the ball at his feet, there’s almost a joy as he capers and dances, moving in that smooth-yet-jerky style of his as he makes it all look so easy. The grace and talent are enviable, the promise massive.
“Hope” is a word often used in discussing him, as in “I’m not going to have any.” Why should you? We assess players as these things that come and go, that exist for our entertainment and gratification. It’s easy to forget that they’re human, easy for us to say, “With all the money they’re paid, why can’t I heap my scorn upon them?” We forget that they’re human. When Andre Gomes found a much happier home in Everton, when you saw how his face lit up, the supporter outreach that he did, it was hard not to find his time at the Catalan club heartbreaking. He had talent, all he wanted to do was the one thing he could, the one thing he was good at. All he got was abuse and anger. And he kept fit, mostly.
Dembele is different. Maybe it is the promise that the mercurial, two-footed wonder talent offers, snatched away from us. Every time he comes fit and in form, to show of himself, bang. Another injury. We support a club, and are fans of players until those players do us wrong. But what if we thought about those players as humans, as people who like us, have great days and shitty days, days where they can’t do anything right, days where they hurt themselves. Do we tell our friends with a bad back or broken leg, “What’s wrong with you? I don’t know why I became your friend.”
One of the purest things seen in a while is Dembele’s smile during training. He was in his element, and his body wasn’t letting him down, something of a rarity for the willowy Frenchman. Many didn’t, but his smile made me smile, because it was really wonderful to have something nice happen to him. While not as dramatic as Abidal fighting off cancer and recovering to help his team in the Champions League final at Wembley and hoisting the trophy, it’s still a player who had a long road back, and he’s back. Imagine how badly he wanted this, how much he must have hoped this would happen, even as we can’t, really.
At the presser the day before the match, Setien said he would be on the bench and, if the situation called for it, might even get some minutes. And we all imagine that situation, either his team is down a goal and needing to score, or drawn and needing a win, and the coach looks down the bench as the music stirs. And on he comes. If the movie ended right there it would still be a happy ending, so let’s enjoy it and him. This phrase comes from my fingers a lot and will again this time: let’s just be human. It’s okay. It isn’t a sign of weakness to allow for something lovely. Lovely things can exist on their own, as moments that bring us vicarious joy.