MADRID — Only two years ago, Ousmane Dembele was playing in France’s lower divisions with modest club Rennes.
On Friday, he became the second-most expensive player in soccer history when Barcelona picked him to replace Neymar in a deal that could reach 147 million euros ($173 million).
The talented 20-year-old French forward suddenly turned into a star by joining the Spanish powerhouse in a transfer surpassed only by the Brazilian star’s recent move to Paris Saint-Germain.
Now the pressure is on Dembele to prove his worth and show that Barcelona did the right thing by choosing him to play alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
Barcelona is hoping to re-establish its successful attacking trio, so it’s probably no coincidence that there is a lot of Neymar in the young Dembele — from the quickness to the nifty skills to the audacity to the ability to dazzle.
Barcelona is already calling him the “prince of the dribble,” someone who can amaze fans with his “sublime skill and gutsy flair.” The club boasted Dembele as one of the “most promising young stars in European football,” a player who has a “golden future.” And it praised him as being “versatile, spectacular and efficient,” someone “almost impossible” to be stopped by the rival defenses.
“He is a player who generates a lot of excitement and a lot of expectations,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We expect a lot from him.”
Dembele has already shown signs that he has the potential to shine and one day reach the same heights of someone like Neymar.
He scored the winner when France defeated England 3-2 in a friendly back in June, in what was his seventh appearance with the French national team. One dazzling moment in that game gave fans a glimpse of Dembele’s talent. Early in the second half, he picked up a loose ball on defense and flicked it past England defender Kyle Walker — one of the quickest in the Premier League — and left him trailing on a pulsating 60-meter run toward the goal.
Although slight in build, Dembele has huge upper-body strength, enabling him to ride heavy challenges and use his body to hold off opponents running alongside him. He is a constant threat with his assists, and can play well on both flanks of the field and through the middle.
“You can’t tell if he’s right-footed or left-footed, he can strike with both feet,” Julien Stephan, Dembele’s coach in Rennes’ reserve team, said in an interview on the club’s website. “He’s a great competitor and he is not bothered by the pressure. He plays naturally whether it’s in front of 3,000, 30,000 or 100,000 people.”
It’s been a rapid rise for the lean forward since he was first spotted by a Rennes scout as an 8-year-old in the northern city of Evreux. The club monitored him closely and brought him to its youth academy by the time he was 13.
Coaches were quickly impressed, and he was promoted to Rennes’ reserve team in the beginning of the 2014-15 season.
“Everyone was talking to me about another player his age, but I only saw him,” said Armand Djire, the Rennes recruiter who got a first look at Dembele. “We brought the family to Rennes and took care of their professional and personal needs. We did everything possible so Ousmane could arrive at (main team) in the best possible conditions.”
By the time he was 17, Dembele had already made his first-team debut in the French league, scoring his first goal as a professional in a match against Girondins only two weeks after his debut.
In his two seasons as a professional in with the club from northern France, Dembele played 78 matches, scoring 22 goals and setting up 25 others.
He became a top prospect for European clubs, and Borussia Dortmund signed him last year in a transfer worth 15 million euros (about $16.7 million at the time). He scored six goals and set up 13 others in 32 Bundesliga games, turning into Barcelona’s top target the moment Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain in a deal worth more than 220 million euros ($260 million).
Neymar had arrived as a possible successor to Messi, and when he left, the club had to find someone else to take on that difficult desk.
Dembele, who will wear Neymar’s former No. 11 jersey, became Barcelona’s most expensive transfer ever, costing 105 million euros ($124 million) plus possible add-ons that could increase the value up to 40 percent of the original fee. Rennes will be entitled to about 40 million euros ($47.2 million) of the amount paid to Dortmund, meaning he’s also the club’s biggest transfer all-time.
“The market has been shooting up in the last few days. It seems that every club will be signing their most expensive player from now on. The prices have gone up a lot since Neymar’s buyout clause was paid,” Valverde said, adding that he hopes Dembele “will be prepared” to handle the pressure that comes with a move of this magnitude.
Dembele, whose mother is from Mauritania and his father is from Mali, was making his professional debut only 21 months ago, and now all eyes will be on him every time he steps on the field.
“He didn’t choose to be in one of the biggest transfers in the history of football, but I think that he is strong enough mentally to bear this burden,” Stephan said. “We will continue to follow his evolution with great attention and pleasure.”
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.
More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni