They cut off Ousmane Dembele’s head on Thursday night, Photoshopping him into a Barcelona kit on the front page of the city’s two sports newspapers. Dembele hasn’t worn the blaugrana yet and officially the deal hadn’t been done, but that wasn’t going to stop them.
“Dembele at last!” said the headline on the front of Sport. “Signed,” said the cover of Mundo Deportivo.
Josep Maria Bartomeu, the Barcelona president, had arrived in Monaco with director Javier Bordas, chief executive Oscar Grau and director of football Raul Sanllehi to meet with Borussia Dortmund. Afterward, the media was briefed once more: It’s not done, but it will be, reporters were told. Two members of Dembele’s family effectively announced it on social media alongside Spain flags — they’ll soon learn — and on Friday, Dortmund publicly confirmed that a deal was close. At 5 p.m. Spain time, Barcelona confirmed it. “Welcome,” it said in four languages.
Barcelona may never have needed a signing quite as badly; few clubs can ever have needed a signing so badly. Few presidents have needed a signing this much, that’s for sure; Bartomeu’s grip on the presidency is slipping. At every turn, he seemed to fail, his position more fragile. Opponents circled, getting louder, and time ticked away. He needed to do something. He had known that he needed to sign someone well over a month ago when he met with Neymar in the U.S., and the need would become clearer with each passing day.
The football is one thing, the need to replace a player on course to be the best in the world. Then there’s everything that comes with it. Dembele’s signing was driven not just by what was happening on the pitch, although that remains the bottom line, but also by everything that was happening off it. And there was a lot happening off it; pretty much everything, in fact, except the “right” signings. A year after Dani Alves had gone, Neymar left and Sergi Samper was going. Even Andres Iniesta admitted, quietly, that he was thinking about his future for the first time. Arda Turan and Andre Gomes, meanwhile, were still there.
Neymar’s departure knocked Barcelona sideways. They had gone for Marco Verratti, confident they could get him, and lost Neymar instead. And “lost” is the word; PSG had played them and so had Neymar’s dad. They hadn’t seen it coming: It was admitted that the players knew before the board did but said nothing. Neymar’s departure changes things, manager Ernesto Valverde said. It changed everything. And even the €222 million received was not much consolation: The post-Luis Figo paradigm was being played out. They appeared to have lost control, although a final judgment should really wait until the final day.
Barcelona came back from the U.S., where Neymar had been on a kind of farewell tour, and were hammered by Real Madrid. The Super Cup finished 5-1 on aggregate, and Gerard Pique admitted that, for the first time, he felt “inferior.” Something needed to be done, but that’s not so easy. And the more you need to do it, the harder it gets.
Paulinho had arrived but, rather than helping, it rebounded against them: He was too old, too bad, too from China, not “Barca” enough. Philippe Coutinho still hadn’t come and, while he still might, most can’t see it anymore. Jean Michael Seri was done and then not done; in 15 minutes, Mundo Deportivo’s front went from “Seri Day” to “No To Seri” after a call forced them to hurriedly change. The club said the decision was technical, but how can a transfer be ruled out at the very last minute on technical grounds?
And Lionel Messi still hadn’t signed his new contract, although they had said he had. As it currently stands, he will be free to negotiate with whomever he wants in January. Few really think he will, but it’s bad enough that it has come to this. The explanation was as simple as it was unconvincing: It was done, but they were just looking for the right time to do it. The times they had said they would do it — after the summer, after the tour, before the season — kept shifting and all have passed. Besides, the right time? The right time to sign up Messi is now! Whatever else you’re doing, drop it.
Meanwhile, if Messi doesn’t want to yet, even if he does want to eventually and even if he is not planning an escape, what does that say? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
In the midst of it all, the pressure built on Bartomeu. Outside, people pointed and laughed. Everything that could go wrong, did. Even Luis Suarez got injured. Mostly, Bartomeu kept silent. Even his media allies, and they are many and powerful too, were beset by doubts. How could others not feel the same way? A motion of non-confidence, brought by former presidential candidate Agusti Benedito, was getting air time and gaining momentum. Joan Laporta, a former president, demanded that Bartomeu be removed “immediately” to secure Messi’s future. (And a whole lot more.)
On Tuesday, as Barcelona announced they were suing Neymar, several players published photographs with him. They joked about Pique’s infamous post that said “he’s staying,” almost crowing about him going. If many fans can hardly have liked it, if the gesture was misjudged, for the board it was even more damaging. One paper called it a “mutiny,” and much as Pique insisted that he and his teammates were not annoyed with the board and much as the report appeared in a Madrid-based and pro-Madrid daily, there appeared to be something in it. The next day, Neymar sued Barcelona back, and beyond the morality of it all, his legal case is stronger.
Neymar said last weekend that the board “shouldn’t be there,” just as Alves had attacked them, describing his departure as a “blow delivered with class,” revenge served cold. He is also in the photos. Yes, he and Neymar are friends with Barcelona’s players and, as Pique rightly insisted, they should not be obliged to hide that. But there’s a difference between not hiding and what they did. Suggestions that players and board don’t get on go back a long time. Remember Messi’s outburst against Javier Faus?
So they needed something, some good news. A signing, and a big one. Preferably two. Sergio Busquets had publicly called for them to get players in, while Valverde said: “I want a squad at the level of the demands made of us.” The opening week of the season went by and a certain desperation took hold. The prices kept going up, and Barcelona went up with them. The players they sought rebelled, but it didn’t force the door open as had been hoped and the pursuits put backs up: Dortmund complained, Liverpool complained, clubs who weren’t even involved complained. PSG said they were “disappointed, again, at Barcelona’s attitude” which, in truth, was a bit rich.
Last summer, Dembele cost €15m when he moved from Rennes to Dortmund; 12 months on, his fee could reach €150m. That’s a tenfold increase and reflects a market that has moved, for Barcelona especially. They were desperate to buy, and when that happens, sellers wait, slowly turning the screw. Barcelona have not so much brokered a deal as ultimately agreed to pay Dortmund what they wanted. They kept coming back until they reached the figure they’d hoped to avoid.
It could yet prove a brilliant buy; they might get it right, they might win it all. “We have a lot of hope placed in him,” Valverde said. It is more than just hope for some. Barcelona needed this, they had to do this. The team needed Dembele and so did the club.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.