A bitter end to the love story of Frenkie de Jong and Barça

Should Frenkie stay or should Frenkie go? He doesn’t seem to know. For weeks, Frenkie de Jong has been hovering in an excruciatingly awkward love triangle – wanted by the club that he doesn’t quite want, and not quite wanted by the club he wants. 

If you’re a Manchester United fan, the answer to the question is obvious. You want Frenkie  (who is widely referred to by his first name alone) to leave Barcelona and come to Old Trafford, even for an inflated transfer fee. Frenkie could be the on-field commander of his old mentor Erik ten Hag’s revival project. Just by being in the stadium, he would instantly double the average football IQ of United’s midfield. 

If you’re a Barcelona fan, you’ll be sad to lose Frenkie, but you might accept that the money is desperately needed to drag your club a little bit further out of the financial hell it has fallen (or climbed) into. And it would pay for the purchase of a certain Raphinha.  

If you’re Frenkie himself, it seems, you would rather stay. You love the club, you love the sun, you love the Champions League – none of which are on offer at Old Trafford. However, you are prepared to leave if Barça stump up £17-million  in unpaid wages  – half of your pay for two years, which you agreed to defer in order help the club back in 2020, when its stadium income vanished due to the pandemic lockdown. 

Problem is, there is apparently nothing in De Jong’s contract that requires Barça to pay him that £17-million if he leaves the club now. Plus, if they do, they might have to pay all the other big earners on the books who deferred half their wages. Hence, this weird impasse: a David-and-Goliath stare-off between a skinny laaitie with Velcro feet and a decaying football empire. 

This is all a long way from the summer of 2019, when De Jong discovered that Barcelona wanted him. At that point, he worried he wasn’t good enough to make the move. That’s how intense and intimidating the Barça mystique is – or was at the time. Because Frenkie was basically a starter-pack Xavi with a Dutch passport. He was a lifelong fan of FC Barcelona. He was born to play for them. While he might not have known this truth, the Catalans definitely knew it. That is one reason why they paid €75-million for him –  double the fee for him that Ajax Amsterdam were expecting to get. 

The other reason for overpaying is that their executive team was financially out of their minds at the time. This was during the height of Barcelona’s long and near-fatal splurge, which ultimately led to the exit of Leo Messi (whose €500-billion contract was the biggest profligacy of all).  

It mattered, of course, that De Jong is a player in the orange-blooded lineage of Johan Cruyff, the latter-day god-king of FC Barcelona. Frenkie has that imperious Cruyffian vibe in possession – a hereditary legal title to the ball. As a young Ajax centre back, he habitually dribbled 30m out of defence like an ego-tripping 9-year-old – only one with sublime control, who didn’t lose the ball en route. He’s a ridiculously clever player, blessed with that distinctive Dutch eye for crowded spaces and how they can be transformed with one cunning workaround – the imaginative trademark of a cramped country. 

So there is something sad and wrong about the fact that Xavi, of all people, is finally deeming Frenkie dispensable. He may not be the new Cruyff; he is not yet a commanding, title-winning figure to rival, say, Luka Modric. But he would have become that figure in the next three years and his expulsion is against the deep grain of the club. It’s a bitter fruit of Barcelona’s age of excess.

The club’s most culpable leaders – Sandro Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Eric Abidal – do have some mitigating excuses for their decade of recklessness – not least the brainwarping competition from oil-state clubs, and the brutal financial demands of stars like Frenkie himself. 

But those excuses only go so far. The love story of Frenkie and Barça didn’t have to end this way. 

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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