After several weeks of haggling and gossip, Barcelona finally has its Neymar replacement. And if various incentives are ultimately met, Barca could end up paying almost two-thirds of the Neymar fee to procure him.
The replacement is Ousmane Dembele, a 20-year-old French winger widely considered one of the hottest prospects in the world. He has officially joined Barcelona from Borussia Dortmund for a base fee of €105 million “plus add-ons,” according to the club. Those bonuses, according to Dortmund, could bump the initial €105 million up to €147 million.
The €147 million price tag would not only represent 66 percent of the €222 million Barcelona received from PSG for Neymar. It would shatter the transfer record for an under-21 player by a whopping €80 million. The previous record deal was Manchester City’s for Raheem Sterling in 2015.
It is a mind-boggling fee for an insanely talented yet still unpolished player. But it is not an overpay. This is what the market heaped upon Barcelona. The Neymar cash became a burden. The inflated market became a multiplier. Only a select few players in the sport could replace Neymar. Dembele is one if them.
Could does not equal will, and critics will argue that Barcelona paid for will. But it paid for a player whose princely talent cannot be purchased with anything less than a princely sum. Dembele, at 20, already possesses Neymar’s dribbling ability. He already possesses the Brazilian’s open-field pace. And he can play a fine ball into the box as well.
But he is not Neymar. Nobody is. Let’s make that very clear. Dembele is nowhere near the goal threat that his predecessor on the Barca left wing is. He found the net 10 times in 50 appearances for Dortmund. He is an average finisher and not yet an instinctive maneuverer in the penalty area. He has scored fewer professional goals than Neymar scored during the 2014-15 season alone.
But again: He is only 20. He wouldn’t be legal in the United States until May 2018. He has played less than two full seasons in first divisions. His career is nascent, and his talent already prodigious.
That talent, first and foremost, is what will have him tabbed as Barcelona’s Neymar replacement. But it’s not the only thing. Dembele should inhabit Neymar’s old home on the left wing. Like the Brazilian, he will be endowed with the club’s present and future. His is the only transfer fee in the sport’s history comparable to Neymar’s €222 million. And he is the most expensive footballer ever aged 21 or younger, a title Neymar held for two years after his move to Barcelona from Santos in 2013.
It’s no wonder then that the brief transfer saga, which featured both holdout and suspension, has had ripple effects around global soccer. It is a loss but also a windfall for Dortmund, who purchased Dembele from Rennes a year ago for just €15 million. And the French club will profit too – a sell-on clause in last summer’s deal will reportedly net it €20 million.
Other beneficiaries include Christian Pulisic, whose path to regular playing time and perhaps stardom is now clear at Dortmund. But the deal wasn’t kind to everybody: Didier Deschamps was forced to leave Dembele out of his France squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers against the Netherlands and Luxembourg because of the uncertainty surrounding the player’s club future and his lack of match fitness.
And then there is the parallel Philippe Coutinho saga, which remains unresolved. Will the Dembele signing tip it one way or the other? If anything, it would seem to limit Barcelona’s spending power and lessen its need for the Liverpool playmaker. But Barcelona is seemingly too deep in those negotiations to pull itself out. And the skill sets of Coutinho and Dembele are not redundant. Both would fit in a Barcelona starting 11 alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
But only one is officially a Barcelona player, and it’s the one who’s the direct Neymar replacement. Dembele arrives at Camp Nou on a five-year contract with a €400 million release clause. He’ll be the second-most expensive player ever. And he’ll be handed one of the biggest tasks that the sport has ever thrown at a 20-year-old.