The Catalan, and Spanish, press didn’t have to go too far to find a story to fill the time, and the pages, over the last international break in October. The future of Julen Lopetegui dominated the agenda at that time, with Spain’s surprising defeat to England also a strong enough tale to shift at least a few newspapers.
There was no such obvious story to lead the Spanish sporting agenda this past two weeks, though, with La Liga’s great and good away with their national teams. This perhaps explains why Ousmane Dembele became the dominant front page splash over the international break, with the Frenchman the hot topic in Spain right now.
Of course, Dembele has found himself front page fodder before. The winger has bore the brunt of criticism ever since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2017 as the second most expensive footballer in history, but the accusations and allegations have never been so sharp before. The rhetoric against Dembele has never been so toxic.
It started when the 21-year-old was omitted from Barcelona’s squad for the shock defeat to Real Betis, which it emerged was down to Dembele not turning up for a training session in the build-up to that match. But it was the explanation for that skipped training session that largely caused the past week’s uproar, with Dembele too tired having spent the previous evening playing video games. Furthermore, Dembele couldn’t be contacted because his phone battery had died.
This has fed into the idea that Dembele hasn’t yet shown the commitment required to play for a club like Barcelona. There is some weight to this argument if recent stories are accurate, but the fierceness of the recent debate around the French winger leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the way Raheem Sterling was vilified for years.
The British press, for a long time, targeted Sterling in ways that made many shift uncomfortably in their seats. At its worst, it was thinly veiled racism as the Manchester City winger was shamed for spending too much, spending too little, driving too extravagant a car, driving too modest a car, buying his mother a house… the list goes on. The World Cup seemed to be a watershed in this treatment of Sterling, but every so often remnants of this attitude rise again.
Dembele might not have been targeted for buying his mum a house, with the criticism angled at the former Dortmund man justified in some instances, but just as was the case with Sterling, it’s the toxicity of the criticism that sits uncomfortably. At best, Dembele has become the scapegoat for any issues Barca face. At worst, it’s something more sinister.
All this distracts from the progress Dembele has made in recent weeks and months. He has shown enough in his performances so far this season to earn himself some leeway. There have been dips and peaks to his form, but what 21-year-old winger doesn’t suffer such variances? This is very common for players of his mould.
He might not be the Neymar replacement that Barcelona bought him to be, but he has become a key figure of the team at Camp Nou despite suffering a fragmented debut season in Spain. Dembele has brought balance to Ernesto Valverde’s side and it shouldn’t be forgotten just how many different players Barca went through last season to solve their problems on the right wing.
Speculation will continue to build around Dembele’s future as the January transfer window comes into view, with a whole host of Premier League clubs linked with a move for the Frenchman. But Barca must look beyond the rhetoric, beyond even their own doubts, to see the true worth of the player, and the true worth of the criticism angled his way.
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