Brendan Rodgers’ first signing showed yesterday that he not only has an eye for goal, but the vision to discover the benchmark of quality in his new home. The French teenager namechecked Larsson, as he did Brazil’s Ronaldo, but it was the weight of Dembele’s words which made the biggest impact.
Celtic Park has seen more than a few recruits over the years who have stated that the Scottish champions were simply a stepping stone to wealthier employers. From Mark Viduka to Mohammed Bangura, the list is endless.
However, Celtic’s new signing from Fulham not only turned down more money to stay in England, Dembele also eschewed a return to Paris Saint-Germain, his hometown club where he was given his football education.
Such is the 19-year-old’s grasp of the big picture, that he could see himself back at the Parc des Princes. But only with Celtic, on a Champions League night. The boy has vision, not brashness. The youngster, who has signed a four-year contract, stated everything at his media unveiling with quiet confidence.
If things go well for Dembele, as they did with Larsson after his arrival from Feyenoord in 1997, those four years might turn into seven. Larsson left Celtic in 2004 for Barcelona and won the Champions League in 2006 in Dembele’s Paris.
Dembele is part of a new generation of French youngsters who have gone abroad to carve out a reputation. Kingsley Coman moved to Italy at 18, while Antoine Griezmann went to Spain at 15. Dembele left PSG at 16 to join Fulham, so it is that maturity which allows him to embrace the switch to Glasgow from west London.
Dembele was out of contract at the English Championship side, who will receive a development fee, but Celtic have not invested in potential. This is someone who is ready to share the burden right away with Leigh Griffiths, whose 40 goals last term was the best since Larsson’s 53 in 2000-01.
“I want to be in the first team from the day I sign and hopefully score as many goals as I can,” said Dembele. “I chose Glasgow because it is a city of football. As a young guy, I want competition and it’s good for me to come to an environment where I will improve. The fans, the stadium, the club, Brendan Rodgers. I will become a better player here in Glasgow than other cities. Passion is a big thing for me. As a player, you want passion from your fans.”
When asked his career goals, Dembele, unerringly, replied: “I want to become one of the best strikers, or the best striker in the world. I think that is possible and working with someone like Brendan Rodgers will help me a lot. The key, is to work hard.
“I model myself on Ronaldo, the Brazilian one. As a striker he had everything. Celtic is a massive club and I see my future here. Hopefully, I can score as many goals as I can for the club, and become like Henrik Larsson.”
Certainly, Dembele received some encouragement at Fulham from Scotland striker Ross McCormack, who used to play for Rangers while hiding his affection for Celtic. “Ross told me only good things about Celtic,” smiled Dembele.
Leaving his native Paris at 16 ought to have induced some anxiety, never mind the fact that PSG were becoming one of the world’s biggest clubs. Yet, Dembele was not perturbed. “I wasn’t scared because I didn’t go alone, my brothers came with me for the first three years,” he said.
“PSG was a good environment. I was there since I was eight. I played with Kingsley Coman for eight years. The main reason I left was because I felt I wouldn’t get a chance when I was young. Now, they are changing that and signing a lot of young players. I had contact with PSG [in 2016] to sign again. I looked at all the options, but Celtic were my first option. I believe we can get to the Champions League.”
If Rodgers’ side can return to the group stage of Europe’s elite, after two years of missing out, Dembele would love a Parisian reunion. “It would be good for me [to play PSG],” he said. “As a young kid, I would watch the games in the Parc des Princes, but I never played in the stadium. Hopefully, I could score and Celtic could win.”
Ironically, Dembele could have been hearing the Champions League anthem at White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur wanted the striker last January. “It was between the clubs to get an agreement and they didn’t,” said Dembele. “At the time, it was disappointing, now, I have to say ‘thanks’ because this is a better opportunity for me. First, Celtic is a bigger club in Europe than Tottenham.
“I know I could earn more somewhere else, but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play. A club like Celtic does not come along often in your life.”