Dembele T-shirts an act of parody from drama-loving Barcelona
For all of Barcelona’s well-publicized off-field problems, it has been a dream start to the season for the Catalans on the field.
Any concerns that Ernesto Valverde’s arrival in the dugout and Neymar’s departure from the team might have been reason for consternation, yet five La Liga matches and five wins later, not to mention 17 goals scored for the concession of two, offer ample evidence of a materialising title challenge.
A Champions League victory over Juventus further blotted out memories of the Super Copa defeat to Real Madrid, which was a two-legged affair that threatened to set a tone for a quite miserable season. For now, that is in the past.
One black cloud has, however, emerged above Camp Nou: an injury to Ousmane Dembele in last weekend’s 2-1 victory over Getafe, which led to the frankly bizarre scene of the team coming out for their next match with ‘Courage Dembele’ emblazoned on T-shirts.
It was the type of show of solidarity one might have expected had the player been diagnosed with a serious illness, suffered a career-threatening injury or encountered some other incredible personal travail.
Instead, it appeared like an act of parody – an overblown gesture of support from a club already with a reputation for taking itself too seriously.
A pulled hamstring required surgery in Helsinki and the prognosis was initially that he could be missing for up to four months prior to the procedure. Following the operation, however, Barcelona have given out more positive about the player’s prospects, suggesting that he should return to action by early January.
The France international winger became the club’s most expensive ever signing when he arrived in the summer from Dortmund for a fee of €105 million that is expected to rise up to €40m more with a series of attainable bonus clauses.
In a frustrating transfer market for the club, he was, undoubtedly, their marquee signing, the man expected to come in and replace Neymar.
That, however, will have to wait.
Head coach Valverde has downplayed suggestions that it was the player’s eagerness to feature that was his downfall at the weekend. Dembele seemed to be hampered in the warm-up session, but the ex-Athletic Bilbao boss said: “I don’t think we should read too much into that.
“But he's a player who has never had muscle problems in the past, so perhaps he doesn't have the experience to recognise problems which could become worse."
“Because he's a fast player, it's the movement he made which was the worst thing for the muscle. Maybe a more experienced player would have known not to make that movement.”
It may be a personal blow to the 20-year-old, and the timing could barely have been more frustrating as he was just starting to settle into life in Catalunya, yet it is hardly a fatal setback to his career, as one might have thought judging by the actions of his team-mates in midweek.
Indeed, there is barely a sportsman, amateur or professional, who has not had to go through the rehabilitation process following such an injury. Most will not have had the luxury of a world-class medical team or the opportunity to earn a lifetime’s worth of money in the time it takes to recover.
Perhaps most crucially, both for the player and for the club, he should not only be back in action by the time the really important action begins in the spring – he should be firing on all cylinders, well rested and full of energy.
Lifting trophies, playing in the World Cup with France and filling Neymar’s boots – all of it remains a possibility in the not-too-distant future.
Barcelona are a side that are, perceivably, getting a taste for overdramatising incidents.
Gerrard Pique’s now infamous ‘se queda’ comment regarding Neymar’s future was the first notable incidence of this during the summer, stirring a transfer pot that hardly needed to be touched, given that he knew the Brazil international had already agreed to move to Paris Saint-Germain as early as the end of June.
Meanwhile, the boardroom debacle continues at a pace, with Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi involved in a standoff with president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Of course, they will sign new deals, they are just very publicly making their feelings known about the current state of governance at the club.
And throughout all of this, Barca are progressing on the field as if nothing has happened. It is an admirable achievement, yet one cannot help wonder if it is a sustainable one with all the drama being whipped up unnecessarily in the background.
The Dembele chapter is just one small facet of that, drawing attention needlessly away from the club’s achievements on the park.
What seems a disaster now will be put into better context when he returns as strong as ever, as he will surely do.