Ousmane Dembele must repay trust of Xavi and Barcelona to earn France World Cup recall

After exit U-turn, attacker faces battle to win over sceptical Camp Nous fans - and Les Bleus manager Deschamps

Ousmane Dembele joined Barcelona in the summer of 2017 in a deal worth more than €120m. EPA
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While Erling Haaland, the latest in a sequence of young players to leave Borussia Dortmund at a tidy profit for the German club, was being unveiled by Manchester City, Ousmane Dembele was boarding a plane bound for Barcelona.

The city has been his home for five years, Barca his employers, but since June 30 Dembele has been a notoriously expensive, unemployed young footballer.

He was greeted at El Prat Airport in the Catalan capital on Sunday by staff from Barca, a clear indication that he and the club were closing in on an agreement on a new deal for the 25 year-old, 11 days after his old one ran out.

It is an extraordinary turn in a relationship that has soured countless times since Dembele joined Barca aged 20, from Dortmund, in the summer of 2017 for more than €120 million.

At the beginning of 2022, with six months left of his contract, Dembele was put on the market by a Barca desperate to cut their losses on an investment that ranks as one of their least successful of their history.

When Dembele turned down the January exit routes proposed to him, he was punished with exile from the first team, told he would not be picked. When he was eventually selected in a match day squad again, he was raucously booed at Camp Nou when he came on a substitute.

That was in mid-February. In the next seven Liga matches, Dembele began belatedly to mend some fences, contributing nine assists in that time and a goal.

If the club’s executives gritted their teeth at watching a sustained run of form unlike almost anything Dembele had put together in a Barca jersey over the previous, often agonisingly stop-start four-and-a-half years, the club’s then new manager Xavi doggedly backed the player.

Xavi has always done so, appreciating the mercurial talent, the inventive duelling and dribbling that made Dembele a standout prodigy in his teens, and had tempted Barcelona to pay such an extravagant fee back in the summer.

At that point, they were flush with the mammoth €222m they received when Paris Saint-Germain triggered a buyout clause in Neymar’s contract with the Catalan club.

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Dembele is not Neymar, but this latest twist in his up-and-down marriage with Barcelona means he may yet emerge as something other than a sad, cautionary tale about wasted millions.

He may avoid yet the place in history of Philippe Coutinho, bought with another, even bigger chunk of the Neymar money, and who has come and gone, unmissed since he was sold to Aston Villa for not much more than a tenth of the €160m they committed to Liverpool for the Brazilian in 2018.

The following year’s splurge, on the €100m-plus Antoine Griezmann, is also consigned to the past, the Frenchman now loaned back to Atletico Madrid, from whom Barca bought him, within two years of a deal that the forward came to regret.

These purchases, and the massive salaries Barcelona racked up in the period before the Covid pandemic blighted their income streams, left the club teetering under massive debts.

They were sanctioned by La Liga’s Financial Fair-Play restraints and obliged to say goodbye, last summer, to Lionel Messi because, Barca said candidly, they could not afford to pay him even half his previous wage.

Xavi Hernandez said Ousmane Dembele 'can be the best player in the world in his position' when he took over as Barcelona manager. Getty

Dembele would earn less under the new deal proposed to him by Barcelona than he did between 2017 and last month, and a significant slice of his potential earnings in a two-year contract would consist of performance-related variables.

It is a wise precaution. He has missed over 100 matches in his time as a Barcelona player because of injuries and has been punished for poor timekeeping more than once.

For all that, Xavi has a clear vision of what Dembele could offer a Barcelona built around wingers who hug the touchline. “He can be the best player in the world in his position,” claimed the coach on replacing the sacked Ronald Koeman last November.

Xavi maintained his faith even as Dembele and his agent fell out with the board in January, and kept his belief in the match-winning possibilities of the attacker even as Didier Deschamps, the France manager, started to prefer other French footballers adept at running, at pace, at opponents.

Dembele won his last cap for France, with whom he was a member of the 2018 World Cup winning squad, more than a year ago, when he was injured during the group phase of the European Championship.

The winger faces a tough task to be on the plane to Qatar in November for Les Bleus’ attempt to hold on to their World Cup. His best route, he seems to have acknowledged, is to win over the sceptical fans of Barcelona, and pay back the trust of Xavi.

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Updated: July 12, 2022, 4:26 AM