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Dembele, Barcelona, and the paradigm shift in world football

Barcelona is learning a harsh lesson as the times change

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

Dembele is a name that sends Barca fans into a frenzy.

You either love him, or you’re driven crazy by him. It’s one side or the other, and you must choose.

In one corner, you have Xavi, and the people who not only rate the player highly, but see him as a marvel.

The Frenchman is a joy to watch with his ability to play with both feet, and the excitement he generates when bolting past defenders.

A manager can’t ignore the potential of a player like Dembele, because even if he has yet to maximize it, you have the feeling that at any moment he could become one of the best in the world. The sky’s the limit if he continues to mature and stay healthy. Maybe he’ll be the next late bloomer like Mo Salah.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

But that’s a big if.

And that’s where the detractors come in, ready to fight in the other corner.

How long do we have to wait for him to complete a full season, and for his stats to match what we all know he is capable of? We could be waiting forever. It’s best to move on, especially when you consider that, as long as Dembele remains, the play on the field will always revolve around him.

But perhaps the heated debate around Dembele is less a sporting one, and more to do with opinions surrounding his character.

And if that’s the case, then maybe Dembele is just the personification of a changing footballing landscape. A change that frustrates many people, especially the romantics.

Let’s remember that when Barca paid 105 million euros for Dembele, it came in the aftermath of Neymar’s shock exit to PSG.

Paris Saint-Germain v Olympique Marseille - Ligue 1 Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

History seems to be going full circle with PSG looking to rob Barcelona again of their crown jewel.

Barcelona, perhaps more than any club in the world, is sensitive to the idea of loyalty.

It’s a privilege to be at Barcelona. It’s more than a club, and players from around the world dream of playing at the Camp Nou.

In many ways, this feeling is tied to the rivalry with Real Madrid, and the sense that the Bernabeu is where the mercenaries go.

Barcelona is for those who believe in the beauty of the game, which you could argue may be more important than winning for many of the supporters.

FC Barcelona v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images

When Luis Figo jumped ship, this belief was amplified further. Never again would Barca allow a traitor to disgrace their name. When you come to Barcelona, you show that you appreciate and understand the heritage, and wear the colors with pride.

But European football is changing fast and facing an existential crisis.

In the post Messi and Ronaldo era, it was supposed to be Neymar who would join a super club and become the world’s next big superstar.

Neymar, famously a big fan of the NBA in the United States, seemed to be watching what the American basketball players were pulling off in their own league. Conversely, it’s the NBA players now, like Lebron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who are watching with amazement at the money being thrown around towards their footballing comrades.

It’s now understood that the game, and the clubs, depend on the star players, and therefore, the biggest and most talented, are making demands for more money and more power. There is leverage for more lucrative contracts up front, and when the player wants to leave, there are new tactics for forcing their way out.

Now it’s Saudi Arabia showing that money talks.

All it took was for Cristiano Ronaldo to lead the way, and become a figurehead for the league, and the floodgates have opened.

Inter Milan v Al-Nassr - Preseason Friendly Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Without labor, there is no product.

The players are flexing their muscle and going where they feel the most valued. Ultimately, for many of these players, it’s about the dollar bills, and not the prestige of playing for the most historic club.

Maybe it didn’t have to be this way.

Maybe clubs like Barcelona just need to learn what motivates the younger generation.

Yes, money matters, so Barca’s new wage structure will be hard to sell to future players, especially if the club can’t keep winning.

But at the end of the day, players want to feel appreciated too.

You can dislike Dembele all you like as a player for his injury history, or if you think he is overrated. The sporting debate is fair and interesting.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

But few players have received as much hate as him. From higher ups in the club, and in the local media.

So maybe, Dembele gets the last laugh.

The contract renewal he signed was ridiculous from the perspective of the club. It was only after the ink dried that we learned about the 50 million euros release clause, when many other players on the team had release clauses as high as 1 billion euros.

This contract always set up Dembele to do exactly what he’s able to do now, at the expense of two characters in Joan Laporta and Mateu Alemany that never showed him the respect he felt he deserved.

Dembele Agrees To Renew At Barcelona Until 2024 Photo by Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Maybe modern footballers aren’t romantics. The name Barcelona may help bring them to the club, but it may not be the most important factor in keeping them there.

Wages matter, and in the marketplace, part of your contract is determined not just by what you have done, but by the perception of what you are capable of doing in the future.

But respect matters most of all.

To that end, Barcelona, at the club level, has no credit in the bank with Dembele, and Dembele in return feels he owes nothing to the club.

In fact, this may just feel like revenge.

Arsenal v FC Barcelona - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Marco Steinbrenner/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

And maybe that makes him a mercenary, or a traitor to some.

But it also makes him a reflection of our society.

The one I feel bad for is Xavi. He’s the person who has shown loyalty and support to Dembele when no one else was interested, and now he will be the one to suffer the most.

I think Xavi is bright enough to find a way to replace his star forward.

But from a personal level, it must sting.

And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson to learn from this saga.

In the world of football, as it currently exists, it’s not personal, it’s business.

And that’s a lesson worth learning as Barcelona builds for the future.

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