We love a quiz and it appears you do too. We hosted The Big Scottish…
Nike’s new marketing campaign, promoting their bold and brash ‘Mercurial’ range, features many of the usual suspects – Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Marco Asensio and Marcus Rashford, to name a few. There is a new face among the superstars and poster boys, though – a 14-year-old Celtic winger.
Karamoko Dembele has already achieved more than most have by his age, earning his wunderkind tag after training with the Celtic first team at just 13 years old, but this week marked a ramping up of the expectations held of Scottish football’s great hope for the future. It’s not just Celtic’s youth coaches that have noted his talent.
Alongside Ronaldo and Neymar, Dembele looked the part, featuring prominently in an advert that will watched by millions over the next few weeks and months. They played his natural jinkiness on the ball, showing the teenager dribbling past a number of limbless opponents. He already has a trademark style.
Of course, any mention of Dembele comes with a sense of caution. There have been countless wunderkinds down the years who have failed to fulfil their potential, struggling to cope with the weight of public expectation placed on their young shoulders. Look at Freddy Adu, Or Martin Odegaard. Or Ravel Morrison.
This caution is accentuated in Scottish footballing circles, where there is an understandable fear that Dembele will choose to represent England at international level, with the teenager already turning out for the Three Lions’ youth teams. A quick scroll through the winger’s Instagram page shows pictures of him playing for both countries. It would seem he is still keeping his options open, which, putting patriotism aside, might not be unwise. From an individual perspective, England could offer Dembele much more than Scotland.
Putting his international future aside, it’s up to Scotland to provide the right environment for Dembele to reach stardom. Scottish football all too rarely deals in excellence. In Dembele, we might have a truly elite talent on our hands, and Nike’s eagerness to sign the teenager to a sponsorship deal shows it’s not just us excitable Scots that think so. And so perhaps we should tailor our approach in this particular case.
Sometimes pressure can forge a diamond. Neymar knows what it’s like to be billed as a country’s next great hope, drafted into the Brazilian national team for the first time at just 16. But while such expectation has crushed many before him, it was actually the making of Neymar. Now, he is a much stronger character for it, mentally equipping him for the pressures he will have to handle all the way through his career.
Dembele will provide Scottish football as a whole with the first real test of its overhauled youth infrastructure. What is the purpose of Project Brave and the accompanying development system if it doesn’t harness a talent like Dembele’s? He shouldn’t have to go elsewhere, either down south or abroad, to become a star.
It might prove difficult for Celtic to convince Dembele that he should stay put. The likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Victor Wanyama might have used the Hoops as a platform to move on to bigger and better things, but when was the last time somebody came through the Celtic youth ranks to become a world class performer? Kieran Tierney stands as an isolated case in the modern age, although even he, as a 20-year-old, has still to fulfil his full potential.
Many will point to the construction of Oriam, adding to the state-of-the-art facilities that already exist at Lennoxtown, as evidence of Scottish football’s capacity for cultivating a player like Dembele. But facilities only count for so much. Coaching is, of course, a big factor, but it’s not purely down to that either. It’s largely about ethos and attitude.
This is where Dembele might be best served opting to fast-track his development somewhere else, whether that’s by leaving Celtic or by making the definite decision to join the England set up. As painful as it may be to admit, England boasts a far better track record at bringing through world class talents. They have a much deeper talent pool, and so that competition could push Dembele to become even better. Either way, Celtic look set to benefit at some point down the line.
It’s not that Dembele is better than Scottish football, it’s that Scottish football might not be ready to make the most of his obvious talent. Look at the mire the Scottish FA currently finds itself in – if you were the most hyped teenager in world football, would you trust them to give you the best possible shot at the top?