Today, August 25, was the day Ousmane Dembele was signed by FC Barcelona. Then, it was thrilling. Today? Not so much.
The challenge of any situation such as the one in which Dembele finds himself, failed by a body, probably by physios, certainly by a fanbase in the thrall of a media circus looking for a villain, is to discover the humanity in a game mostly bereft of it.
Most people don’t know what it’s like to have a body let them down, a thing so reliable that suddenly isn’t. And it isn’t just that your body is no longer reliable, but that your body is robbing you of the thing you love to do, the thing you’re better at than anything else.
Most of us live lives in quiet desperation. Athletes kinda piss us off as they make millions for playing a game, for doing stuff with their bodies that we don’t even have the template to dream about. Dembele, coming up, was joy. He didn’t run, he almost capered, pracing about like a deer just figuring out what those spindly legs could do, every new thing a revelation.
Ball at his feet on the dead run, solving problems on the move, Dembele was one of the most dynamic, exciting attackers in world football, undone by a bundle of muscle and tendons. It was a backheel, the simplest of moves, performed by a new transfer in the midst of a delight of a debut, looking for a little glitter to toss at the home fans. When he left, nobody could possibly have expected what was to follow.
He broke, then broke again. And a baying media horde turned him into a wastrel as supporters picked up the idea that he brought the injuries on himself, was happy to rip up his hammy so that he could sit in the stands and collect his millions. That people had such thoughts without feeling shame is one of the more perplexing things in a game gone mad with expectation and hunger for success.
What have you had taken from you? How did it feel? “Immaterial. To hell with him.”
The latest injury came while on national team duty, this tine not the hamstring but certainly related to the area of malady, one that can affect everything in the area. And people almost reacted with glee as he proved their lack of faith in him again. It’s something deeply sad, almost unutterably so.
Remember when Messi hurt his hamstring — again — in a Champions League match against Celtic, and he wept. It wasn’t the pain of the injury, it was the broken dreams attendant to it. This entire body, and this one stupid little thing is keeping me from everything. We felt compassion for Messi, and maybe we used most of it up, expending the last of it on Sergi Samper, who had to deal with a vast array of injuries and moments of rotten luck that derailed a career.
Because there is none for Dembele. And there should be.
Just this past season, Barça was on the rivet against Valladolid in a match that meant … well … everything to the team’s suddenly resurgent Liga title aspirations. It was late, and nobody was doing anything — moments, but few real chances.
A cross went into the box, bounded off the head of Araujo and the Valladolid defender, the ball floating through the air on a curved trajectory. Dembele moved to it for the volley, adjusted his body so that a ball that initially struck his leg mid-shin exploded off his foot with enough power and accuracy to beat a keeper at the near post, a keeper already standing at the near post, having read play perfectly. The shot was just too good. It was an amazing goal.
Some of the comments on Twitter were essentially, “Well, he wasn’t very good and he’s so frustrating to watch, but what a goal, kinda.”
It was weird to watch Dembele play and be relaxed about it, learn to trust his body, to play with joy again. Weird to remember that his only knock until the NT stint was a “normal” two-week hamstring twinge. Weird to watch him enjoy what was, functionally, his first season with the club.
It’s easy to understand. It’s a consequence of a player with so much talent that we don’t know what to demand of him. He runs like a gazelle, changes directions like a cat, is two-footed, possessed of exceptional close control. He can also fumble balls, make inexplicably bad passes and act like he has no idea what to do. Dembele is a moving target.
A Twitter follower, @MusaKnowsBest, at the time of the Valladolid goal summed up the complexity perfectly:
“there is a weird obsession on framing his performances through the lens of his weaknesses and not his strengths that persists even when he has strong performances, a lens which isn’t typically applied to others.”
And what we’re left with is a massive uncertainty. How will he return from this latest setback? What will happen with his contract? What will happen with him? Football is filled with massive talents whose careers were wrecked by injury, from Right Ronaldo to Giuseppe Rossi and Isaac Cuenca. A wrong step turns a glitter bomb into a sad pile of regret.
Some players we feel bad for. Other players we curse. And the difference is so often perception, but also expectation, that thing that drives us. We want our team to do well. How DARE that person damage our expectation by being so … frail.
Ousmane Dembele is damaged goods in every way, from perception to physical ability. You can’t suffer that many injuries and not be altered. Ansu Fati, back with the team after a freak contact injury and THREE knee surgeries, is welcomed with the kind of anticipatory glee that is attendant to his status as Most Likely To. We can only wonder how, should Dembele return to the club, the reaction will be.
“He’s back. For now. He’ll screw up any second now.”
How have we lost the ability to not be saddened by failure of a type a person can’t control? Dembele’s body has, in effect, taken football from him. Is there still joy in the game, or just fear and paranoia as he, like the rest of us, waits for his body to let him down again.
We craft ideas, justifications for it. “Football IQ,” “can’t learn this or that.” For me, this goes beyond football into humanity. It breaks my heart every time a player is felled by something beyond their control. When it happens again and again, the sympathy is, for me, that much deeper, even beyond what they can or can’t do on the pitch. They were testing Jeffren’s hair products for allergies, such was the flummoxing nature of his consistent injuries. How must that have felt?
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
Yes, Dembele is frustrating. Golazo one minute, silly lost possession the next. It’s maddening, made the more so by the potential he shows when he gets it right. From unplayable to self-sabotaging.
But he’s had so many surgeries it’s difficult to remember how many. He has to be on a frequent flier program by now, such is the frequency with which he returns to the operating table. How can we feel about that? How should we feel about that? What’s the saying about there being nothing sadder than lost potential? We usually say that when someone messes up themselves. What about things beyond someone’s control, snatched away by fate? Victor Valdes makes a play he’s made thousands of times, but this time it’s different. Done.
Ousmane Dembele is a millionaire. FC Barcelona pays him exceptionally well for his services, and it’s safe to say he hasn’t repaid anything like fair value. Okay. And the questions remains: what is the role of humanity in all of this. How are we supposed to feel? Should we wonder if he would give every last Euro of that money back to be able to return to that night at the Camp Nou, just before that backheel, when his body was a reliable thing, a car that every day he must fire up and think, “Let’s see what this thing can do.”
I’m not a betting man, but I bet Dembele would take that exchange, would take the deal over the life he will have going forward, when every tackle, every ache or pain, every little twinge comes with fear. We think, “Oh, Christ. He’s hurt again.” But imagine for a second, just a second, what he must be thinking.