Michael Corleone could well have been describing the situation we find ourselves in now with Barça and Ousmane Dembele with the famous line, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”
When my fingers last touched keyboard on this matter, it was with the assumption that the player was gone. Now, not all that later, he’s in the squad to face Atleti with the blessing of his manager, some bloke named Xavi.
What’s also interesting is that a number of sensible people are suddenly less so when it comes to this matter, stomping about as if there is some sort of betrayal, or failure of principles in returning an employee to the workplace. That’s the value of propaganda.
“He doesn’t love the club. Off with his head, and he can’t join in any more reindeer games.” There were public statements, things threatened that were never viable legally, all in the interest of stage managing opinion — and quite successfully. Part of the game.
Sport, part of the baying horde, has a headline saying that the club is concerned about supporter reaction to Dembele. There was a solution to that, a road not taken. When a player who has an idea of their value (a number we STILL don’t know, despite the leaks of stratospheric sums) seeks that value, they aren’t evil or disloyal. “It’s just about money for them.” Duh. It is for the club as well.
For those saying, “Well, the player brought it on himself,” no. He didn’t. He and his agent worked to negotiate their best deal. So did the club.
“If he didn’t want to stay he should have come out and said it.” Perphaps he does want to stay, but the terms aren’t compatible. Same with Araujo and Gavi, by the by.
The way this has been handled is also dangerous, especially in a world where tribalism can so quickly veer into something more sinister. And if you don’t think an extreme supporter might not do something dangerous, you should reconsider.
Mbappe is the crown jewel of PSG. He’s leaving on a Bosman in the summer, by all accounts to Real Madrid. No histrionics, no threats, no accusations that he doesn’t love the club. “Well, Barça is different.” They’re selling that the club is different, but it isn’t. It’s just another mega-club, a SuperLeague wannabe looking to maximise its revenue, which brings us to Dembele being in the squad.
Xavi went along with club dictates in sending Dembele to the stands for two matches, outings for his club that I suspect he watched and seethed, knowing that the player who sould have been most useful in both desultory outings, was banished. Once the situation “resolved” itself with the player staying, it became a money game. Barça has to finish in the Champions League positions. Period. Sending a player whose abilities can help with that to never-never land would be stupid. Xavi isn’t.
He said in the press conference, “(Dembele is) part of the squad and we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot, I’ll use him as I see fit.”
Ferran Torres called the Frenchman a unique player who can help the team. Dani Alves cautioned against letting “ego” get in the way of what the team needs, now that Dembele is staying. All three of them are right. But using Dembele as a part of the team is just as much a money decision as painting him as Greedy Satan during the contract talks.
The club bluffed, and the player called it. “I will come to work every day and fulfill the terms of my contract.” That is exactly what any professional would and should do. Xavi is also a professional, tasked with getting results. To ask a professional manager who is serious about results to not use the most talented player available to him would be — unprofessional.
“They just want to win.” Is there shame in that? Some would suggest there is, that the club wants to do anything for money. Is playing Dembele more a betrayal of principles than hopping into bed with a U.S. corporation whose most famous contributor is a person being excoriated for disseminating dangerous, misleading information during a pandemic? And they might put that corporation’s name on the Camp Nou. So spare me the bleating about purity.
Money makes big clubs work. Want Haaland? Welcome to the Spotify Camp Nou. Anything to stay in the game. This is moneyball and your club needs it. Dembele is in the squad because he’s a potential tool toward that end.
The phrase “never get emotional about money” keeps coming to mind. But so does the famous Denzel Washington line from “Malcolm X:” “Ya been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled!” Outraged that Dembele is in the squad and might play? Ask yourself why, and consider what you might have fallen for.
The club consistently presented a single side of a debate in which the other side was silent, except one note to express things that were misinterpreted because of the effectiveness of the other side’s gambit. And everyone knows everything about a situation when in truth, we know nothing.
Here’s what we do know: Dembele is in the squad. He’s there because he can help the team achieve a Champions League position, which is crucial for the club’s fiscal goals. That’s it. It ain’t right, or wrong, or pure or impure. It’s just money. The most effective thing that clubs do is convince their supporters there is something different going on, that it isn’t just “Rollerball” in short pants. It isn’t anybody’s fault for being susceptible. Tribalism makes us do all kinds of things, fall for lots of stuff. And at the end of it all, the games go on, the money keeps rolling in. Because what else is there?