The Enigma That Is Ousmane Dembele

(Photo Credits: Four Four Two)

Ever since Ousmane made his controversial move from Dortmund to the eastern shores of Northern Spain, he has been one of the most talked about players in the world. Starting with the very way he left Dortmund- missing training sessions, reporting late after the pre-season, going AWOL and completely freezing his ties with the club at one point to somehow realise his long awaited dream of donning the Blaugrana colours and playing at Camp Nou.

And his dream came true at rather an expensive cost of 145 million euros for the club from Catalunya- the merits and demerits of which were argued over for an entire year and a half.

Neymar went out of his way and abandoned his compatriots and with just a couple of weeks to go before the transfer window closed for the seasons, both FC Barcelona and Ousmane Dembele were desperate – the former on sealing the deal on one of the hottest properties in world football, an incredibly talented, unpredictable and pacey winger –  and the latter on fulfilling the dream he saw on the streets and concrete jungles of Evreux in France.

Dembele’s symphony at his dream club began on a very bittersweet note, more bitter than sweet actually. Goes without saying that a price tag of over 100 million creates a different set of expectations for a football player and the hushes, the whispers of criticism started to creep in amidst the Catalan media. They would go full Raheem Sterling on the young talent a season later, but more of that later.

Somehow, people forgot that he was just a 21-year-old in his third big season in professional football, a kid from France who did not understand the local language and the fact that adapting to Barcelona’s game usually takes a lot of time. Even superstars like Luis Suarez and Neymar Junior had to go through this, but somehow you could sense that the price tag blindfolded people’s clarity and perspective when it came to judging Ousmane.

And Barcelona were reckless with their new found gem. They rushed him into the heat of the battle without giving the player time to breathe and get used to the methods in Spain and as a result, the price to be paid was soon due. Three games into the season, Dembele ruptured his hamstring and had to sit out for three months.

Reports emerged in the media during this time about Dembele’s issues and eccentricities – of him having to share one roof with his parents who had been separated and refusing the club nutritionist’s advice of keeping personal shape and eating healthy (a program Neymar undertook to help his physical adaptation to Spain five season prior) to add muscle mass instead of eating unhealthy like every other youngster –  causing distress in the upper echelons of the club’s management.

When Ousmane did return in January however, it seemed that Ernesto Valverde and the trainers hadn’t learnt any lesson from the previous mishap and 160 minutes of football in four games later, Dembele got injured again- though this time, it was a minor setback. It was at this point that it started to seem to many in the press and even officials close to the club that signing him could have been a mistake.

Maybe Dembele didn’t have it in him physically and psychologically to succeed at a large club like Barcelona, all the while conveniently forgetting that the process of his integration and management is generally disastrous, and that even a certain Lionel Messi struggled with muscular problems very early in his career.

Despite all these shackles bogging him down, Dembele actually managed to show flashes of brilliance, particularly in games against Chelsea in the second leg of the Champions League and against Villarreal and Levante in La Liga, which was more than enough evidence that he was a raw and rough diamond begging for extraction, processing and chiselling.

Dembele ended the season with a World Cup in his hands and despite not being exactly instrumental to France’s excellent campaign in Russia, he was celebrated by the French people and journalists as they realised what his true potential is – and that he was a future superstar in making and representative of the best of French football along with fellow teenager, Kylian Mbappe.

This was in stark contrast to the treatment he received in Spanish papers who were busy formulating stories linking him with a transfer to various clubs across Europe having judged that his stint at the Camp Nou was a failure and that Barcelona were insistent on retrieving as much on their investment as possible. Speculations on a transfer to Arsenal seemed pretty strong and certainly plausible, all the while as members of the club officially denied it.

Ousmane missed the preseason with Barcelona once again- this time because of his involvement in the World Cup and as the pens and keyboard warrioring of his detractors and critics in the media grew sharper and louder, chose to stay silent and reserve his talking for the pitch.

He returned to Barcelona in early August and scored the sublime solitary goal that won his side the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla and while celebrating, he made a point to find his critics.

That celebration became visible much more frequently in Spain after that, much to the relief of the Camp Nou crowd who have taken a liking for the young winger and chant his name often during home games.

Dembele’s goals have been very crucial for Barcelona in the league campaign so far as statistics show that he has rescued 7 points already for the club with his equalisers and winners. He has also adapted more on either side of the flank and displayed a maturity and confidence in his game this season that was non-existent.

Ousmane has also cut a character of stark contrast and is more vocal and aware of the pitch, asking his team-mates to press as a cohesive unit, linking up with Semedo on the right flank as opposed to his shy and timid nature in the previous season. He has had wonderful performances against most of the big teams this season and it was only after his introduction in the second half that Barcelona progressed from 2-1 to a gobsmacking 5-1 scoreline against Real Madrid in the most recent Clasico.

However, with all that being said, Ousmane isn’t entirely free of guilt either. He has often seemed lackadaisical, even more so in his first season at the club where fingers can definitely be pointed at him for not showing enough desire and commitment for something he has always claimed to be a dream. Or take into consideration a more recent case. After the effortless derby victory at the Cornella where Dembele got himself a goal and put on a great performance against Espanyol, he arrived 2 hours late for training the following day, when his teammates were already leaving the Joan Gamper training ground.

“Schedule the training back to a couple of hours every day”, shouted a Catalan journalist as Dembele was off celebrating his seventh minute goal against Tottenham. And what a thing of beauty it was! Beating Walker-Peters at a footrace for 25 yards, he collected the ball around the halfway line and led a frantic counter. He shrugged Peters’ advances in dragging him down, changed direction twice (rivaling Usain Bolt for pace with his lanky legs) while at it.

As he entered the penalty area, he decelerated to a quick halt, feinted a fake shot that humiliatingly dropped Ben Davies to the floor and finished off the move sublimely with his left boot that was as adept as the one on his right.

That was the ninth match running in which he had scored or assisted one of Barcelona’s goals. It was also the enigma of Ousmane Dembele at its absolute best.

He has turned up with absolute moments of inimitable magic (bar Messi of course) as his off-the-field issues have continued raging on.

Reports of him often turning up late for training, missing them altogether, staying up late to play video games and not sticking to a professional approach have been ever present and even his teammates Pique and Suarez have pointed out his irregularities on record- not the right thing to do as senior members in the dressing room, in my opinion.

I must add to the context here that even Lionel Messi was addicted to fast food and soft drinks and even had a squabble with Pep Guardiola regarding this when he was 20. Gerard Pique has a history of reporting late to training. Luis Suarez struggled with weight issues and discipline and Neymar still has an irregular and unprofessional nightlife/commercial habits.

My point being, that crucifying a 21-year-old for making his first slip-ups in a profession where everyone falters at one point or the other is a tad bit extreme and isn’t helping the case of a youngster who will easily go on to be one of the best players in the world in a couple of years.

What holds next for Ousmane Dembele at Barcelona whose stint at Catalonia has been as unpredictable and crazy as his own style of play?

More video games, diet coke or the true ascent of a kid from La Madeleine a Evreux of absolute genius?

Only time and Ousmane himself can tell. However, from what I’ve personally seen so far, Ousmane is and has done more than enough for FC Barcelona to bet on him, to protect him and like Messi most recently expressed in an interview, ‘to help him grow as a professional.’

When Messi admits that Dembele is a phenomenon and could be one of the best, you know there’s a certain raw talent in the kid to warrant that and Barcelona should make the most out of it and ease his adaptation instead of forcing narratives of doubts.

Dembele, who spent his entire childhood coping with poverty and the problems of a troubled childhood as a kid born in an immigrant family in a poor backyard of urban France, has certainly shown enough temperament.

Critics and media pressure does not get to him and if he keeps his feet on the ground and get used to the challenges and discipline of professional football with the help of his teammates and friends, will inspire many more kids that are like him to sing ‘Crochet Crochet Crochet! Ousmane Dembele!’ and have lofty dreams.


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