He loved Brazilian legend Ronaldo as a kid and is admired by Zinedine Zidane, played with Kingsley Coman and Adrien Rabiot at Paris Saint-Germain, and is most definitely not Belgian…ladies and gentlemen, ligue1.com presents Olympique Lyonnais' Moussa Dembélé.
Zidane's a fan
Growing up in the western Parisian suburb of Pontoise, Dembélé was a Ronaldo fan, "the Brazilian one," he said. "He was the perfect striker; he had pace, strength, skill and made scoring goals look easy. For me, he was one of the best players ever. Being from Paris and France, of course, Thierry Henry was one of my favourites too."
While the young Moussa was admiring two of the all-time greats, an all-time great is now admiring him. Zinedine Zidane played with Ronaldo at Real Madrid and alongside Thierry Henry for France in winning the 1998 FIFA World Cup and EURO 2000, and the Madrid boss likes what he sees in his young compatriot.
"Dembélé is an exciting player with really big potential and who has already shown what he is capable of," the Ballon d'Or winner said during Dembélé's time at Celtic.
Any local boy wants to play for his hometown club, and Dembélé was no different. PSG had — even earlier than Zidane — spotted his potential, and he joined their youth academy aged just eight. He played alongside Kingsley Coman and Adrien Rabiot in a high-powered, fresh-faced line-up, but with his route to the first team blocked by the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi, he saw his future elsewhere. Not that he holds a grudge. "Paris is a big club, they make you dream, just like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich," Dembélé told French TV when asked about whether he'd return to play for PSG. "I'd think about it."
WATCH: Dembélé scoring against PSG
West London calling
"For fans that haven’t seen me play before I would describe myself as an explosive striker. I’m quite strong and quick off the mark, I can play with the ball on the floor or win headers in the air. I like to think I’m a technical player too, one that can both create and take chances. I love scoring goals - it’s one of my favourite things. That’s my job after all."
That was how Dembélé — aged 16 — just after signing for Fulham described himself to the west London club's fans, who were struggling to spot the difference between their new teenage striker and Mousa Dembélé, the Belgium international forward already at the club. (The answer is two 's', not just one).
Dembélé did distinguish himself. He helped the club win the Premier Academy League in his very first season, the 2013/14 campaign, the same one that saw him make his Premier League debut. Fulham were relegated that year, but Dembélé continued to flourish, and scored 15 times in 43 appearances in the Championship — English football's second tier — in 2015/16 to really make a name for himself.
Mention Moussa Dembélé to Celtic fans, and one of the first memories that will spring to mind is from 10 September, 2016. On that day, just over a month after signing for the Glasgow giants, the French forward earned himself a slice of club history with a hat-trick in the 5-1 Old Firm demolition of arch-rivals Rangers.
"The day I got the hat-trick, I could have scored more," he said, giving an insight into the mindset of a goalscorer. "I'm the type who thinks if I scored three then I could score five — but I still wouldn’t be happy because I had scored five."
WATCH: Dembélé snatches derby win for Lyon at Saint-Étienne
He did something similar to endear himself to Lyon fans too. Struggling to establish himself in the first team since returning to French football in summer 2018, Dembélé came off the bench in the derby with AS Saint-Étienne, and after missing a glorious chance, netted an added-time winner to earn OL local bragging rights in January 2019.
Lyon's new lion, France's new forward?
The derby matchwinner turned out to be a springboard for Dembélé at OL. He scored nine in the remaining 17 league games of the season, ending with 15 goals in 33 top-flight appeareances. He added ten in 19 matches in the first half of the 2019/20 Ligue 1 Conforama campaign, and then started 2020 in excellent form to underline his importance to the side.
"Moussa is an excellent player. He's a player we need," explained OL president Jean-Michel Aulas, who — if French media are to be believed — was inundated with enquiries about his free-scoring forward.
"Of course he's taken a step up, but that' nothing new. He's done that ever since he arrived," said teammate Anthony Lopes. "He's really taken on a new stature at OL. He's scoring goal after goal. It's good for everyone."
The next step is the senior France side. Dembélé scored 13 times in 25 U21 appearances for his country, but has yet to earn a call-up frorm Didier Deschamps. "I'm not disappointed, it just means I haven't done enough," he said. "I have to keep working. It's up to me to force my way into the squad. There's a squad that has done stuff together. I have to try and stand out from the crowd."