Ousmane Dembele is still moving with caution around the Ciutat Esportiva. He hardly knows the club's employees and is discovering the areas and rooms where he's going to spend the next years of his life with Barcelona.
Dembele is a kid of 20 years who has just landed on an unknown planet. If 18 months ago he was still an amateur player, he's now the second most expensive player in the world. It's not easy to adapt to so many changes in such a short space of time. With the face of a good person, Dembele is a devil on the pitch and hopes to learn and adapt to his new team-mates as quickly as possible and prove his worth. Here he explains his first impressions to SPORT.
Explain your life to me.
I am the oldest of four siblings (one brother, two sisters). I always played football with my friends on the streets of Eure, in Normandy, not far from Paris. I lived there, studied there and aged seven I began to play a little futbol sala on Mondays and Fridays. Later I signed up for the club next to my house. At 13, Stade Rennais came to sign me and the whole family moved to Rennes. I wanted my family to follow me and be by my side. So there was no problem moving. I played for the various youth teams for the next four years...
And began to stand out…
Yes. Things didn't go badly for me. I began to play for the France youth teams, too, and made my debut for Rennes' first team on Sep. 6, 2015. I remember the date well because from then everything went mad. I played a lot of games and I am happy with how things went.
What coaches have left their mark on you?
One from the youth teams at Rennes and Thomas Tuchel, who helped me to progress a lot.
Your love for Barça began at eight. How was that?
I remember two games especially. One against Chelsea, when [Andres] Iniesta scored the goal to qualify for the Champions League final. When I see Andres now I remember it. I can't wait to tell him. And the other was a Champions League game against Arsenal. Barcelona had not done great in the first leg but in the second leg they produced a brilliant performance, with four goals from [Lionel] Messi. That's when I realised Messi's not from this world. It was incredible.
Have you seen a game live at Camp Nou?
Where did your passion for Barça come from?
I had a poster of Iniesta. He seemed like a different player to me: elegant, special... a genius. I watched all the Barcelona games to see how they played and the geniuses, Iniesta and Messi. After, I tried to imitate them but...
It was difficult because they do things that no one does. Messi always plays at a sublime level. He's the best player in history.
Why didn't you sign for Barça last summer?
Because I'd been a professional at Rennes for just six months. Can you imagine? Just six months!
So it was too soon?
Of course. I wanted to learn, play Champions League games, know what that competition was, to play a whole season with a big team, playing regularly, developing...
And that was impossible with Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez?
I would have learned a lot in training but it would have halted my progression. Luckily Barcelona have come back for a second time and this time I could not let the train pass.
How many times to Robert Fernandez come to your house to convince you?
I remember once last year. We spoke before Barcelona decided to [try and] sign me and then one more time this summer.
You stopped training with Borussia Dortmund to get the move, why? How was that for you?
I was relaxed. It was a question of negotiation between Barça and Borussia. I knew I had to have patience. I decided to stop going training. I didn't want to go. I looked for an excuse not to go. If it didn't work out and I hadn't done my part to get the move to Barça, now I would be lamenting the fact I wasn't here.
Do you think they'll ask the same of you as Neymar? That there will be comparisons?
No. Honestly I don't think so. Neymar is a great player with a lot of class, one of the best in the world. I am young, I am here to learn and to add what I can to Barcelona.
What did Kylian Mbappe say to you after you signed for Barça?
He's a really good colleague. We speak a lot on the phone and even more during this process. He's happy for me. He tried to calm me down when the days were passing and the signing wasn't made official. He told me it was a question of time. He was really happy for me when I signed, he congratulated me, wished me the best. I wish him the best, too.
Him in Paris, you in Barcelona... what do you expect now you are here?
My first target is to intergrate myself into the team. To offer good performances on the pitch and, with the whole team, to win as many trophies as possible.
Tuchel, your former manager at Dortmund, said you can win the Ballon d'Or. Is that an aspiration?
He loved me too much…
You don't think you can?
Being serious, it's not a challenge in my life. My objective is to learn from the best in the world, to integrate myself into the team. I am only 20. Personal titles aren't something which motivate me.
You repeat the fact you're only 20, you've just arrived at a great club, without much expeirence, in an unknown player, with a language you don't know yet... Are you a little scared about it all at the moment?
I'm not scared. I am impressed. I'm focused on getting up to speed because I hadn't trained for two weeks. There's little else I can do apart from get to know how things work here and keep assimilating.
What were you doing while you were waiting to sign?
I ran a little in the afternoon, although I couldn't do it during the last few days because it was too hot. But above all I was by the phone, waiting to find out how everything was.
Were you nervous?
Yes, really nervous, although I could rest at night. I just wanted it to go through as quickly as possible. Now it's time to get back training and get back in shape, which is not too hard given my age and my weight.
There was the terror attack while you were waiting. What did you think?
I was in Paris when I found out. I saw on TV everything that was happening. It was terrible for all of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain and the entire world. I will never understand why people do these things. I am sad for the whole world.
Will it be difficult to adapt?
I don't know, I hope not. They play differently here. It's another way of understanding football and I hope I adapt.
Another football language…
Yes, exactly. I have to remember all the information that I've been given by [Lucas] Digne, [Samuel] Umtiti and Theo.
Theo's a good friend, a team-mate with the national team [at youth level]. He's told me a lot of things. He was in the academy for a number of years, but he's at Nantes now. I always spoke with him, asking how life was in Barcelona, how the clubs was, the training sessions... We've spoke a lot about football.
Will you adapt to this new language?
Here it's about possession, passing. I've followed it a lot on television. I hope to learn to play like this, although my qualities are speed, attacking, one-on-ones...
Does it surprise you how much people talk about you being two footed?
I am not the only player who plays with both feet. there are a lot. Here at Barça, too. I have always, since I was young, wanted to play with both feet, not just one, because it limits you. I hope to improve here and be strong mentally.
That's important here.
Yes, very. You have to have something in your head to understand the Barcelona play. You have to adapt as quickly as possible.