Four and half years after Ousmane Dembele became the most expensive purchase in Barcelona’s history, the club’s president Joan Laporta declared the winger “better than Mbappe”.
Laporta – who was not in charge when Dembele, then 20, joined for an initial €117 million from Borussia Dortmund – smiled at his audience of reporters as he made the remark.
He knew, speaking in early December 2021, he was making a big claim, and the statement masked a long, complicated relationship between Barca and a player whose great potential had too often been very far from his day-to-day reality.
The Dembele-Barca saga has never run smoothly for long, and its latest sharp twists and turns were being played out on Monday between the US, where Barca are on a pre-season tour, the club’s Catalonia offices, and Paris, where the names Kylian Mbappe and Dembele were being bracketed together again, this time by Paris Saint-Germain as the French club contemplated the exit of their own restless superstar.
For PSG, the recruitment of Dembele, 26, represents one way of soothing the likely departure of Mbappe.
Deadlines with heavy financial implications defined a hectic day of negotiations, July 31 being the last day of a period specified in Dembele’s Barcelona contract during which his buyout clause is set at €50 million – it would double as of August – and at the same time the deadline set in Mbappe’s contract for triggering a year’s extension to his current deal with PSG, one that expires in 2024.
Mbappe has made his intention not to extend very plain, leaving PSG facing the prospect of losing him for free next year unless they can sell him to a club he wishes to join – Real Madrid are by far the leading candidate – this summer.
Reconciled to saying goodbye to Mbappe sooner or later, PSG advanced their interest in Dembele over the weekend, reviving a previous enthusiasm that Laporta recalls only too well.
PSG 0 Al Nassr 0 - in pictures
In the winter of 2022, just weeks after the club president made his bold, fanciful comparison between Dembele (16 starts for France in seven years since his senior international debut) and Mbappe (captain of France with 70 caps to his name and still only 24), PSG were also pursuing the enigmatic winger.
Barca then spent that January in dispute with the Frenchman, briefly exiling him from first-team practice after he stalled on signing a contract with fresh terms and yet refused to be sold.
That episode forms part of a long, chequered history of fall-outs, frustrations, confrontations and occasional boos from the Camp Nou crowd.
But the Barca-Dembele saga has also been punctuated by applause and several thrilling glimpses of the inventive, uniquely imaginative dribbler they imagined they had signed for that hefty fee in the summer of 2017.
Back then, Barcelona had just received a world-record €222 million when PSG triggered Neymar’s buyout clause – a sale Barca did not want to make.
In the next five transfer windows, they would spend all the Neymar bounty and much more on three now notorious signings: Dembele; Philippe Coutinho – €135 million from Liverpool – and Antoine Griezmann, at €120 million from Atletico Madrid.
They were notorious because Coutinho flopped and Griezmann returned to Atletico unfulfilled in Catalonia. Barca made huge losses on their investments in both players.
For a period, Dembele’s purchase fee looked the biggest squander of all three €100 million-plus signings. Persistent injuries meant that in the six seasons he has been on the staff at Camp Nou he has been unavailable for almost 40 per cent of matches.
He has played under five different head coaches, but the last of them, Xavi, has been his most ardent backer.
Last season, Barcelona’s progress to the Liga title featured Dembele at his most influential in the first half of the campaign, injury then putting a brake on his momentum. He still assisted in more goals than in any previous season in a Barca jersey.
At the weekend, Dembele scored the opening goal in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Real Madrid in Dallas, only a pre-season friendly but still a boost to the Spanish champions’ morale – not least in the elegant way Pedri picked out Dembele’s run, a sign of the smooth, established complicity between two of Xavi’s most creative players – and in Dembele’s precise, angled finish.
“He’s essential for us,” Xavi said of Dembele, already anticipating that, with the player’s reputation at a fresh high, a tough battle to retain him was ahead.