Barcelona spent the final few hours of the January transfer window desperately trying to generate interest in a player president Joan Laporta has said is "better than Kylian Mbappe" and coach Xavi Hernandez insists can be "the best in the world in his position." However, as Laporta worked until midnight at the club's training ground offices with director of football Mateu Alemany, ordering in pizza, they could not find a new home for Ousmane Dembele.
Dembele, 24, is out of contract in the summer, meaning he's able to join a new team for free. Two weeks ago, following a failure to reach an agreement over a new deal, Alemany told the winger to find a new club before Jan. 31 as Barca wanted to remove his salary from the wage bill to make room for new signings amid LaLiga's tight salary cap controls. There was a late offer from a Premier League club, Laporta said, and tentative links with Paris Saint-Germain, but the France international never looked like leaving Camp Nou, even though that could mean he spends the rest of the season sitting in the stands, as Barca have threatened.
Dembele was once Barca's most expensive signing, joining from Borussia Dortmund for an initial €105 million in 2017 to replace Neymar after the Brazilian moved to Paris Saint-Germain for a world record €222m. But, almost five years after he joined the club, Dembele remains an enigma. He's made 129 appearances, scoring 31 goals, but has missed over 100 games through injury. Off the pitch, he's kept himself to himself, with one source telling ESPN that several teammates were even surprised to find out he got married during the recent winter break in Spain.
There remain more questions than answers. How good can Dembele be? Will he play for Barcelona again? And what comes next in a career which has promised so much?
Additional reporting by Moises Llorens and Julien Laurens.
Why has his Barca career stalled?
Sources have told ESPN that as early as 2020, Barca had a feeling that Dembele was intent on running his contract down -- though sources close to the player say that's not true. That summer, a loan move to Manchester United failed to materialise because he wasn't willing to extend his terms until 2023. Barca wanted protection in the event that, in 2021, United didn't exercise an option to make the deal permanent that had been negotiated. In that scenario, Barca would have been left with a player in the final 12 months of his contract with his value greatly reduced.
The club ended up in that scenario anyway. Dembele sustained a long-term injury playing for France at Euro 2020, which made a transfer last summer impossible. The two parties have been unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a renewal ever since, despite sources on both sides of the talks telling ESPN the club wanted to keep Dembele and that the player's preference was to stay.
Injuries have been a theme throughout Dembele's Barca career: He has missed over 700 days with fitness issues, almost two full years. Those problems have prompted speculation in the media about Dembele's life away from the pitch. Sources have told ESPN that the club have sought to help the forward make lifestyle changes to improve injury prevention, but added that it's perfectly normal for a young footballer, living in a new country away from his family, to need support in one way or another.
Barca have helped by facilitating a chef, whom he shared with former teammate Miralem Pjanic, and instructing him to eat certain foods, such as red fruits, to help with his muscle problems. There have also been reports of unprofessional behaviour -- including video game sessions until the early hours -- but the truth is we still know very little about Dembele. It's true he has been fined for being late for training in the past, but he's not the only player to struggle with punctuality occasionally.
He rarely speaks to the media and lives a very private life in Pedralbes, just to the north of Barcelona's city centre. He spends most of his time with childhood friends. Moustapha Diatta, who was at Dortmund with Dembele and gave up a professional career to relocate to Barcelona with him. He also remains close to Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano -- they're both from the French town of Evreux. New Barca signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who played alongside Dembele at Dortmund, is also a friend.
Sources say that, contrary to popular belief, Dembele speaks excellent Spanish, although he's often surrounded himself with French speakers, such as Samuel Umtiti and, previously, Antoine Griezmann, at Barca. Beyond that, his relationship with his teammates is fine if not close, which is not unusual in working environments.
It's with that context that in late January, in the midst of increasing speculation about his future and his character, Dembele finally spoke out.
"For four years I have not stopped reading things about me without defending myself," he wrote on social media. "The gossip about me has been growing. People lie shamelessly with the only intention of harming me. I have never responded to anything. Was that an error? Probably. That stops now. I am 24 and, like all men, I have defects and imperfections. I have been through tough moments, caused by injuries and COVID-19. But I have always fulfilled my duty [as a footballer] because it is my PASSION."
Contract stalemate causes issues
Dembele remains an excellent footballer. He's not yet fulfilled the potential he showed at Rennes and Dortmund which led Barca to pay an initial €105m to sign him, but he's shown glimpses of quality. He's rapid, tricky and genuinely two-footed. At his best, he's capable of bringing 100,000 fans to their feet inside Camp Nou with one change of direction.
For that reason, both Xavi and Laporta were desperate for him to renew his contract. When he was appointed in November, Xavi told Laporta to make the issue a "priority."
"In his right position, worked on well, Ousmane could be the best in the world," Xavi said of the winger, who adds width, variety and pace to Barca's attack. Laporta agreed, comparing Dembele to Paris Saint-Germain's Mbappe; a comparison he reiterated this week.
At the same time, Barca were trying to negotiate a reduced salary with Dembele's camp. But a source close to the player wondered to ESPN how you can compare Dembele to the best players in the world but then not pay him accordingly? The timeline for the renewal negotiations and how many offers were made varies depending on who you speak to, but there were semi-regular talks between August and December. Laporta has previously said the club made two proposals, later claiming the second offer expired on Dec. 20. Sources close to Dembele say there was only ever one offer.
As the January transfer window opened, Barca became increasingly frustrated at the lack of urgency from Dembele's camp to agree a renewal. They even threatened to banish him to the stands if he didn't sign a new deal.
"It is intimidation and it doesn't work with us," Dembele's agent Moussa Sissoko told RMC on Jan. 18. "I am here to defend the interests of my player. Yes, we have certain demands, but we've already shown that Ousmane's career choices aren't dictated by money, otherwise he would not be here. If Barca wanted to negotiate, they could have come to the table with us to talk. Except there has been no discussion, just threats of no longer playing him [if he doesn't renew]."
Dembele is not the first player to reach the final six months of his contract. In the post-pandemic football world, it's become increasingly common for players to run their deals down. Mbappe and Paul Pogba are just two of a handful of the game's top players in the same position right now, with contracts expiring in 2022.
Barca's exasperation, in part, is related to their financial situation. They're €1.4 billion in debt and renewing Dembele would have made more room within their LaLiga-imposed spending limit for the year. Not just because of a reduced salary, but because it would have allowed them to spread the remaining transfer payments, which are amortised over the length of his contract, over a longer period of time.
It would have made registering Ferran Torres -- whose €55m signing from Man City made Dembele's camp wonder just how financially-stricken Barca really were -- much simpler. Instead, they had to send Philippe Coutinho out on loan and re-work Umtiti's salary. Renewing Dembele would also have made signing a new left-back a possibility last month, although they still managed to bring in 38-year-old right-back Dani Alves, who is earning very little, Wolves winger Adama Traore on loan and Arsenal striker Aubameyang on a free transfer.
As the end of January approached, tension bubbled to the surface after Sissoko's comments. Xavi said Dembele needed to sign a new contract or find a new club on Jan. 19. A day later, he left him out of the squad for the Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Bilbao. He has not played since. Alemany explained that Dembele had until Jan. 31 to leave Barcelona because he clearly "isn't committed to the club." The Spanish Players' Association [AFE] warned Barca against acting illegally with Dembele by not selecting him.
It now seems that there was very little contact between the club and Sissoko in January. Sources have told ESPN that Barca were waiting for an answer which never came, despite Laporta mentioning a December deadline this week, while Sissoko insists the club were never open to listening to what his client wanted -- which sources said was around €8m-a-year.
There was a meeting between Xavi and Sissoko last week, though the agent was photographed at the airport receiving a call from Paris Saint-Germain director of football Leonardo. Xavi has always said that Dembele has transmitted a desire to stay to him and the message was the same from Sissoko. There were links to PSG late in the window, and Laporta says there were offers from England, but sources close to Dembele say he was never going to leave in January. So as the window shut, and the pizzas arrived, Dembele remained a Barcelona player.
What next for Dembele's future?
Dembele has been training as normal this week and could even be included in Sunday's game against Atletico Madrid. Sources say he still hopes to stay at the club and even more so now that Aubameyang has joined from Arsenal. The two enjoyed a brilliant relationship on and off the pitch in Dortmund and both hope to play together again.
Laporta, meanwhile, says Barca have been assessing what their options are. They have even considered rescinding Dembele's contract, sources have confirmed to ESPN, something the player is unlikely to accept. But there is some division. While Laporta and the club's hierarchy have made it clear they don't want to use a player who is likely to leave, Xavi's position is not as tough.
The Barcelona coach has previously said sidelining a player for six months would not be a good look. In addition, someone of Dembele's ability could be useful as Barca find themselves in the unusual position of fighting for a place in the top four in LaLiga this season. Missing out on the Champions League next year would be a financial disaster for the club. In the post-Lionel Messi era, Dembele is one of the few attackers they have who is capable of turning matches.
"It's difficult for him to play [for Barca again] because Xavi is rebuilding the team and knows who he can count on for this season and the next," Laporta said. "But [Dembele] has a contract and, if he's available, the coach will decide."
Laporta also reiterated that the previous contract offer has been taken off the table and added that if Sissoko wants to re-open negotiations "the conditions now would be completely different."
Dembele, meanwhile, has been left waiting. He knew staying at Barca entailed a risk of not playing any football but sources say he believes he will get minutes at some point. Those same sources insist he has no agreement in place to join any other club on a free transfer this summer, even if Laporta has intimated that he does.
The ball is in Xavi's court. Dembele has made it clear he's ready to play if needed and Laporta said he doesn't think the France international should feature again. Will he? Won't he? It may depend on injuries, suspensions and the need for results. Aside from Ansu Fati's injury, Barca are fairly healthy in attack at the moment, with lots of options, but that can change quickly.
As for the medium-term, the Dembele issue will resurface in the summer when his contract expires. Sources say they don't believe he can stay at Barca now because too many bridges have been burned. None of the parties have explicitly closed the door on reviving extension talks, although it seems improbable at this stage. PSG and the top clubs in the Premier League are watching on as Barca face losing a player who could cost them up to €145m for nothing.
"There have been a series of situations with Dembele which haven't been the best," Laporta reflected this week. "He didn't adapt, he cost a lot [of money] and he had a lot of injuries. We've been understanding when he's been injured or sad when the media have been [unfair with him], so there is some disappointment. He's a great player that we have not been able to enjoy."