A big sigh of relief was audible around Sabener Strasse on Friday evening as Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich’s main rivals, had just sold one of their crown jewels in Ousmane Dembele to Barcelona.
The 20-year-old French international, who joined the Westfalenstadion only last season for a now-negligible fee of €15 million, became the second-most expensive player in the world on Friday. Mind-boggling, given that the youngster only made his professional debut for Rennes in Ligue 1 on Sept. 6, 2015. Just 719 days later, he’s been brought to the Camp Nou as Neymar’s replacement.
Barcelona are to wire a fixed sum of €105m plus additional bonuses that can go up to 40 percent of that, making the deal potentially worth €147m. Westphalian outlet Funke Mediengruppe reports that €30m of the bonus fees are “basically in Dortmund’s pockets,” while the Germans have to pass €20m on to Dembele’s former club Rennes.
Though it is the biggest payday in BVB’s history, CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke pointed out during a news conference on financial statements on Friday that a transfer of Dembele “would be a weakening for us in a sporting sense.” And for many fans, that is a big gripe with the transfer.
In 49 matches, Dembele scored 10 goals and added 21 assists across all competitions, coming close to Kevin De Bruyne’s assist-vaganza of the 2014-15 season. Although Dembele is still somewhat raw in his game, it quickly becomes obvious that it won’t take long before his name will appear on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.
It’s the lightning-quick ambidextrous dribbles and changes of direction that let the Frenchman dance past defenders as if they were slalom poles, and they cause entire stadiums collectively to hold their breath when he handles the ball. It’s the sense of excitement that something special can happen at any given moment.
Without a doubt, Dembele was a generational talent for Dortmund and brought levels of fun that are hard to replicate. And especially in the latter stages of his short-lived tenure at the Westfalenstadion, the midfielder’s talents translated into results in important matches — and eventually silverware.
Dembele’s goal and assist against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in the DFB Pokal semifinal were down to pure individual skill and got BVB from a losing position to the final, where he scored a vital opener against Eintracht Frankfurt that helped the Black and Yellows secure their first trophy since 2012.
“I would be happy if he is with us going forward,” Nuri Sahin told ESPN FC after Dortmund’s 3-0 victory over Wolfsburg last Saturday. “I’d prefer him to stay on because he is a difference-maker.”
It’s hard to deny that selling Dembele is a dent in BVB’s short-term ambition. The 20-year-old could have been the difference in a title race against a declining Bayern Munich side, or lifted the Black and Yellows from a Champions League quarterfinal to a semifinal. At this point it’s only speculation on what could have been. Certain is that with Dembele on the team, Dortmund had a higher likeliness for success this season. For a fan, that’s a punch in the gut.
On the other hand, though, there is that small detail of Dembele “abandoning the family,” as Dortmund defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos put it. There are no guarantees that Dembele was to pick up where he had left off last season after not showing up for training and thus being penalised with an indefinite suspension by the club.
The Ruhr side also had to consider the otherwise very likely possibility of losing both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dembele together in one transfer window in 2018, which only would have made things harder further down the road.
So, where do Dortmund go from here?
Luckily for them, there are many indications that this will be the year of Christian Pulisic. The United States international, who turns 19 on Sept. 18, has shown throughout the preseason that he has taken another step forward since last season. He reaffirmed that assessment with a goal and an assist against Wolfsburg and could very well be the most natural replacement for Dembele — although that description would do the youngster injustice, as Sahin put it.
BVB have been linked with Olympique Lyon’s Maxwell Cornet and Bordeaux’s Malcom, while the names of Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt, Ajax’s Amin Younes and Paris Saint-Germain’s Julian Draxler are also floating around as possible Dembele replacements.
Sporting director Michael Zorc has six days left to add another difference-maker to his squad. Six days that will be crucial in which light the Dembele exit will be seen in hindsight. But landing a deal late in the transfer window with every club knowing that BVB have bags of cash will be anything but easy.
Even with more than €100m in the bank, selling Dembele remains a gamble. Dortmund, who are often criticised for not being able to hang on to their best players, sold their best attacking player even though it was not a necessity. And as Otto Rehhagel once famously said: Money does not score goals.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.