“We have to stop this right now,” Xavi Hernández said. The day he took over as Barcelona manager Xavi had insisted that “in his right position, worked on well, Ousmane Dembélé could be the best in the world” and that extending the Frenchman’s contract was a “priority”. Sitting alongside him, a little giddy at the opening of a new era, was Joan Laporta. The Barça president, who had declared Dembélé “better than [Kylian] Mbappé” a week earlier, flashed a knowing smile. “Understood,” he said, and everybody laughed.
More than two months later, no progress has been made. Months of negotiations achieved nothing except mutual accusations. Dembélé could already talk to other clubs and although Xavi had wanted him to stay, there was no deal, the gap between offer and demand too great. Barcelona concluded he didn’t really want to stay and that it was time to cut their losses. Xavi handed him an ultimatum: “renew your contract with us or go now.” Or, you know, don’t.
It is 12 days since the Barcelona manager told Dembélé to leave and 11 since he left him out of the squad, warning that he would not play again. It is also 11 days since the director of football, Mateu Alemany, concluded that Dembélé didn’t want to stay and should go. “Before 31 January,” Alemany said.
That, you might have noticed, is on Monday but Dembélé is still at Barcelona, if not on the pitch, the central figure in both this window and the club’s immediate future. Unless talks with Paris Saint-Germain that started on Sunday reach a positive conclusion, deadline day will almost certainly end with Dembélé at the club.
The day after delivering his ultimatum, Xavi followed through on the threat, guided more by the club than his own inclinations, and left Dembélé out – a decision repeated four days later. That morning, Alemany made the club’s position public: Dembélé “is not committed to our future” and must leave. Instead, Dembélé released a statement expressing his determination to resist and revealing he felt mistreated. The players’ union warned that leaving a footballer in the stands in a bid to force a new deal was “illegal”.
After “four years” of “endlessly reading things” without defending himself, of “gossip” and “shameful lies…aimed only at hurting me”, Dembélé had had enough. He wouldn’t accept people talking for him or agent Moussa Sissoko, or questioning his commitment. And he certainly wasn’t going to be forced into any decision. “I am not a man who cheats and still less a man in the habit of giving in to blackmail,” he warned. “From today, it’s over.”
His time at Barcelona is over too. If the statement theoretically left a door open by insisting that, contrary to what the club said, “there are negotiations”, words like blackmail are not easy to retreat from. The question is when it ends and how. The deadline the club set – midnight on Monday – is one they cannot enforce. Xavi had known that: “Dembélé is the one holding the frying pan by the handle.”
That weekend Dembélé didn’t turn up to training, claiming gastroenteritis – the exact reason Xavi once said was the footballer’s go-to excuse. There have been talks between Sissoko and Xavi which hinted at a rapprochement. There has been public theatre too, a certain silliness to it all, not least when Sissoko’s phone rang as he passed TV cameras which caught “Leonardo, PSG” on his screen.
Towards the end of his statement, Dembélé declared: “Surely love is a kind of blackmail”. The man who Lionel Messi had said “can’t speak” had not only spoken for the first time, but turned all philosophical on them.
Exactly what he meant is unclear, which was oddly appropriate: a lot of this doesn’t make much sense. The club that wanted him to stay has told him to leave. The man who seemingly wants to leave, is determined to stay. The man who assured his manager he intended to continue, isn’t. The club’s decision not to play him hurts them more than the player.
Dembélé has never been as important as he is right now, and that’s a strange kind of important. The blunt, uncomfortable, sad conclusion is that he has rarely been important at all; the absurdity of all this is that he doesn’t matter this much, or shouldn’t. Calling him better than Mbappé doesn’t help to convince him to accept a lower salary and when Laporta said it, mostly people just laughed. Dembélé could be the best player in the world, Xavi had said. Could be, not is. This is his fifth season.
There have been glimpses of a superior talent but his presence has been fleeting, almost incidental. A transfer fee of €140m, 12 injuries, a third of league games started, 31 goals. Choose a standout moment, and many fans would recall that miss against Liverpool.
There is a cruelty in players like Dembélé standing accused of suffering more injuries than anyone else. But the truth is he never really felt part of things at Barcelona. This year he might have done. He had affection, a manager keen to work with him, and departures made him the differential talent. He had a team that actually needed him. A club that needed him, too – even if it was to leave. And that’s the key. Trapped by his salary and his potential, Dembélé is simultaneously a symbol of the crisis that engulfs Barcelona and their potential way out of it, a problem inherited from their past and a hope for their future, Dembélé has become the player who conditions everything. This is all of their futures, not just his.
An agreement on a contract extension would have secured a player the coach called “fundamental” and spread his salary and amortisations over a longer period to allow for other players to arrive too. It didn’t happen, so they gave up on that and tried to make him go, seeking a sale or at least a saving that would permit short-term manoeuvrability, signings lined up in anticipation.
But Dembélé won’t be “blackmailed” into staying or going and now here they are, one day left, still waiting on him. It is a familiar feeling, going back five years now but at least it is coming to a finish. The best-case scenario sees them secure a last-minute exit. If not, he stays and waits until the summer, disappearing from the field, a forgotten man once again.
Unless they change their minds once the window actually closes, backing down from a threat no longer of any value and choosing to use an asset they could do with, Ousmane Dembélé will never play for them again, his total stopped at 129 often forgettable games. Instead, he will sit there, alone, watching them play without him, his Barcelona career sadly ending much the way it went.