2:13 PM ET
Sid LoweSpain writer
Dembele’s cameo vs. Napoli was a good one, especially given the tension between him, Barcelona and the fans in 2022. Eric Alonso/Getty Images
“Well, the fans didn’t take any notice of me, that’s for starters,” Xavi Hernández said. Twenty-five days after FC Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele had been handed an ultimatum — renew or leave — and told he wouldn’t play for the club again, there he was, playing for the club again, sent on in the Catalan derby away at Espanyol. Now, four days later, here he was again, called upon once more. Needed, he had been entrusted with another rescue mission, this time in front of his own fans against Napoli in the UEFA Europa League.
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“Don’t whistle him,” Xavi had asked, but he knew it was inevitable, which is why he said it. Too little had been done, and too much had been said, to avoid the supporters attacking him — particularly by the club. They’d turned Dembele into a villain, not just a footballer who didn’t want to sign a new deal and refused to give in to what he called blackmail. “The supporters are sovereign: they’re in charge, and they decide,” Xavi said, and they were always going to decide to whistle him, making their feelings felt.
Everyone knew this was coming. What they didn’t know was that this was coming.
It was always likely that the reception Dembele got at rivals Espanyol would be less hostile than the one awaiting him back at the Camp Nou, but when it happened it still smacked you right between the eyes and left your ears ringing. There were 73,500 people at the Camp Nou, and all of them (or nearly all of them) whistling made a lot of noise, no doubt about their view. The kind of noise no one had heard for a long time, the sound of rejection.
It was huge: “the size of a castle,” as one radio commentator put it.
Ousmane Dembele whistled on for his first Camp Nou appearance of 2022 pic.twitter.com/umUd7Q18Nu
— Samuel Marsden (@samuelmarsden) February 17, 2022
Shut your eyes and you could easily imagine that Luis Figo had walked back out there. And Luis Figo had lied, left and come back in a Real Madrid shirt, sinking Barcelona in the process. Dembele hadn’t gone anywhere — not yet — and was still wearing a Barcelona shirt that had the club badge on it too, unlike the one worn by Ferran Torres. He didn’t get a pig’s head thrown at him, so that’s something, but the rejection was turned up full blast.
They hadn’t listened to Xavi, it seemed. Or maybe they had.
The contrast to the moment when Luuk de Jong came on with five minutes to go couldn’t have been greater. Greeted like the anti-hero he has become, De Jong almost won the game for them, too — the striker they didn’t want very nearly getting the goal that edged them closer to progression into the tournament they didn’t want to be in. His overhead kick flew just wide, though. Had that gone in, the stadium would have fallen down, and not just because it’s pretty much doing that already.
By then, the Camp Nou had stopped whistling Dembele. He had made chances, running at Napoli, becoming the man most likely to find the break though. And although he and they didn’t get the winner, the game finishing 1-1, there was a glimpse there of the role Dembele was likely to play. A glimpse too of the fact that he could be good for them, that some reproachment was not beyond the realms of the possible.
“In the end, the whistles were turned into applause from the fans, once he had done a couple of moves, a cut back, a dribble,” Xavi said. “Ousmane has a lot of character, and he turned the whistles to applause and that is the story, the news: he turned whistles to applause.”
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It’s a seductive idea: another redemption story, that staple of sport and the media. Footballer makes amends, atones for his sins, wins the fans over. Maybe even makes a point. It is also a line that was repeated everywhere on Thursday night and he following morning: he had run at Napoli, turning their defenders and his own fans. The thing is, it’s just not true. So maybe they did listen to Xavi after all. Some of them, at least.
The previous week, Xavi had said that if Dembele was going to stay, he might as well be of use. It was a point he’d made repeatedly to the club, and eventually they had listened and backed down, letting the coach play him. After all, if Joan Laporta’s claim that Dembele was better than Kylian Mbappe just made most people laugh, he is a good footballer, or at least he’s supposed to be. It didn’t make much sense to have him sitting in the stands if he could be useful.
No, he wouldn’t be there for long; yes, playing him was a short-term solution, but so much of what Barcelona are doing now is short-term. Nor did it make much sense to attack him. “I understand that there are people angry and hurt but what matters is what’s good for the group. And he’s just another member of the squad,” Xavi said. “We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot.”
On Thursday, they didn’t.
After the fans whistled and booed him upon entering the game, Dembele simply got down to work. DAX Images/BSR Agency/Getty Images
After the match, Gerard Piqué said he didn’t like the whistles because while he could understand the upset, “they’re not good for us.” He also suggested that if they were to express their anger, they do so after the game, not during it when the whistles could be a “distraction.” And yet while the timing was not what he suggested, that was pretty much what they had done.
Barcelona’s fans did not change what they did because of what Dembele did but Dembele might have changed what he did because of what Barcelona’s fans did. he chronology and causality was the opposite of what was assumed: he didn’t win them over, they decided to take his side. Or, more accurately, to take the team’s side. They had stopped whistling before he had really done much.
Dembele was whistled loudly when he came on, and the first time he got the ball. The second time, too. And the third, but by then there was a little bit of applause. Each time he got the ball, the balance tipped the way of the applause. Not because he’d done anything to earn it, but because they hoped he would. Or that someone in the team would; it wasn’t really about him at all, and they were gong to provide the conditions to make that more likely.
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This was an act of maturity and realism. pragmatism. Basic good sense not always seen or heard: this is a country, a club, where players are whistled often, and it rarely helps. This time, it was as if they realised that. The applause was not so much aimed at Dembele as it was aimed at those whistling. Not so much encouraging him, as discouraging those who laid into him, an attempt to eclipse the whistles — which soon, much sooner than expected and well before he had done much to change his fate, they did. Those fans won over the others; soon, the whistles had faded out. Barcelona were on the attack and Dembele was too.
Regardless of where you stand on Dembele, of who you blame for the mess, what you make of the club’s decision to act as they did and so publicly, how you judge what he contributed (or didn’t contribute) in the four years he has been there, it was time to do what was right, right now. Barcelona took the decision to try to avoid these final months being ruined too, things being made worse. To not shoot themselves in the foot. Heaven knows Barcelona have done enough of that recently.
“There, we’ve whistled him, and that’s that. What’s done is done,” Xavi said afterwards.
They had their say, and that was it. Done. Better things to do. The clue is in the name: the supporters had decided it was time to support their team — for whom Ousmane Dembele still plays, even if only for a little longer.