‘Young Ronaldo’ Dembele has the talent but his temperament will be tested at Barcelona
Ousmane Dembele’s move from Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona is a remarkable transfer. Not only is the €147 million fee (bonuses included) the second largest in the history of the game, it also holds the peculiar distinction of being a record sale for BVB as well as formative club Rennes.
The Ligue 1 outfit expect to recoup around €20m due to various clauses they inserted into their transfer agreement with the Bundesliga giants little over a year ago. That fee will match and perhaps even exceed the fee they made selling Shabani Nonda to Monaco in 2000 and will dwarf the €15m up-front they received from BVB.
And all for a player that they might have lost for nothing only two years ago.
Dembele’s professional career faltered before it had even started. With the likes of Manchester City, RB Salzburg and Benfica circling, he was steadfastly refusing to sign a professional deal with his formative club, where he held a trainee contract that was only due to expire at the end of June 2017. How far he has come in the interim.
Indeed, moving to Barcelona will represent a “dream” accomplished. Yet the 20-year-old winger, noted for his pace that can make sparks fly, has made it his mission since he was young to accomplish his goals.
As a boy, Dembele would take his football with him everywhere. He would dribble it to the shops with his mother, take it to bed with him every night but most importantly he would hone his skills with it at the park opposite his family home in Evreux, a small town to the north west of Paris.
Even at that stage, the talent he possessed was glaringly obvious.
“When we were in trouble, we’d give him the ball and he’d take care of the rest,” childhood friend Moustapha Diatta, who knew Dembele as a primary school kid, told L’Equipe. “We were a band of brothers. He’d make us win and everyone was happy.”
Coach Gregory Badoche added: “He knew he had to put himself to the use of the team, which was not easy at first. But he listened, I insisted on that.
“He was followed closely by his family and possessed a great mind, so we could only hope it was not wasted, particularly as he had a lot of determination and perseverance: he knew where he wanted to go.”
If Barcelona was always the long-term target, then Rennes was to prove a necessary stepping stone. The club moved his whole family – mother, two sisters and brother – to Brittany in order to provide him with a more stable base, and over the spell of six years were richly rewarded for their faith.
“He came to Rennes relatively early but already possessed his fluidity, rhythm, dribbling skills and great technical quality,” coach Yannick Menu remembered. “We didn’t know if he was right or left footed!”
On the field, the player’s individualism continued to frustrate the parents of other players, who would be left exasperated as Dembele lost the ball as he tried to beat a fifth or sixth successive opponent. However, he would be slowly weaned off this individualistic approach, which characterised his game.
By the time he was on the fringes of the first team, his talent was under threat of being frittered away, however.
“We were told that it was going to be complicated, that he was too frail, according to head coach Philippe Montanier, who didn’t even think he was ready to train with the professionals,” Badou Sambague told L’Equipe.
Dembele, still no more than a trainee at this point, boycotted training and grumbled: “I want to be at a club that has 100 per cent confidence in me. Here, that’s not the case. I will not change my opinion. I’ve always respected their decision and they must respect mine.”
The impasse lasted over a month and had it not been for the intervention of former Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre, the club’s sporting director at the time, Dembele might have been lost for a pittance. Eventually, the player backed down and agreed terms on October 1.
By November, he had earned a starting spot, marking his first full game by producing an outstanding performance that was capped by a goal.
“I’m convinced by my potential, so I had awaited this moment with impatience,” he said.
Montanier was left looking rather foolish by the whole episode and would be sacked by January. Thereafter, Dembele would begin to shine.
He smashed numerous records, becoming the youngster player to 10 top-flight goals in France in close to 30 years, while he became the first Rennes player to net a hat-trick in Ligue 1 for the best part of 10 years when he scored three in the first half of the derby against Nantes.
“I’m going to take a risk, but he could be a challenger to win the Ballon d’Or,” Silvestre explained in February 2016. “I saw Ronaldo sign for Manchester United at the same age and Ousmane has characteristics that remind me of a young Cristiano.”
Of course, interest was mounting and this was manifested with a move to Dortmund.
True to form, he made an immediate impression in the Bundesliga, with Mainz defender Leon Balogun remarking: “I spoke to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the game and said, ‘Wow! Who is this young man you’ve bought? He’s incredible.”
In Germany, Dembele’s game became more about creating goals for others than scoring them for himself – finally the realisation of the goal that every coach from youth team level has sought. But egotism still burdens him, evidenced by his decision to go on strike to force through a deal with Barca.
Nevertheless, his sole campaign in the Bundesliga wrought a stellar 13 assists plus six goals (21 and 10 respectively in all competitions). Such figures are formidable for a player of such a tender age.
Little wonder, then, that Barcelona have elected to invest so much in him. He cannot doubt their faith, but if he is to shine at Camp Nou, where teamwork is considered the greatest value, his maturing process must continue.