Imagine that you, like Franck Kessie, either caused or scored each of the winning goals in the past two Clasicos for Barcelona in your first season at the club. You’d feel like the king of the world, right?
Now imagine that, despite beginning to look like Real Madrid‘s kryptonite, despite you being a reigning champion of Serie A (having joined from AC Milan), and despite there being serious absences in the Barca ranks this week (Pedri and possibly Frenkie de Jong), you’re still not guaranteed to start Wednesday’s Barca-Madrid Copa del Rey semifinal at Spotify Camp Nou (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+, US only).
How would you feel? Confused? Angry? Rebellious? Insulted?
Kessie, a pleasant surprise this season in many aspects, is actually exemplary in his attitude, his reaction to the challenges that have faced him and in his “I’ll be patient and be ready when called upon” mentality.
The surrounding context is this: Barcelona lead 1-0 from the first leg in front of a stunned Santiago Bernabeu. Xavi’s team are 12 points clear at the top of LaLiga with 11 matches remaining. While Madrid have achieved two significant things this season — winning the Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup — they lost the Spanish Supercopa to Barcelona and have suffered four Clasico defeats since last summer.
Kessie’s role in all that was to sprint towards Thibaut Courtois‘s goal in the semifinal first leg, when Eduardo Camavinga was short with a back-pass, then take Gavi‘s little clipped ball in his stride, shoot with his right boot and watch the effort deflect back into the net when Courtois’s save hit Eder Militao. The Ivory Coast international midfielder followed that up by coming off the bench in the most recent Liga Clasico and, in the 92nd minute, finishing off a clever Robert Lewandowski–Alex Balde move with a right-footed clip past Courtois to win a match Barcelona looked like losing.
Even after all that, and with both De Jong and Pedri out injured, the 26-year-old didn’t start against Elche in Barcelona’s 4-0 weekend win. Further, he had to watch Eric Garcia be promoted from the defensive line to play his first-ever senior match as a central midfield pivot — a role in which Kessie looked more than capable in the Blaugrana‘s final Champions League group game, away to Viktoria Plzen, in November.
According to him, though, he’s not ticked off.
“Obviously all footballers want to play as much as possible, so it was tough at the beginning here,” Kessie said to Diario Sport last month. “Playing regularly keeps your confidence high and the worries don’t start creeping in. On the other hand, if you’re not getting many minutes …
“But I was mentally prepared for coming to FC Barcelona and knew the process would take time and effort. It was a new club with a unique philosophy in a different country so I made sure that I arrived with a positive attitude and the self-belief that has got me this far in my career.
“I made sure that I was training as hard as ever and the manager was really supportive. He kept telling me just to be patient, that my time would come as long as I kept putting the effort in. I think I’ve proven myself by playing consistently high-quality football — the coach and my team mates recognise that. Now I just need to keep it up, work hard and continue to earn the coach’s trust and confidence.”
When this hard-working, smart and team-focused midfielder was young, it was the Pep Guardiola era at Barcelona that wowed him.
He saw things in Yaya Toure that made the Ivorian an early hero — nimble feet, the ability to drive from deep midfield and arrive around the opponents’ box to create danger. They shared a nationality but also footballing traits.
However, it was Xavi’s mesmerising brilliance with the ball that completely enamoured the teenage Kessie. That made it a no-brainer when his all-time hero called him last season, while his contract in Milan was running down to expiry, and asked: “Do you want to move to the Camp Nou?”
“That was the clincher for me,” Kessie said. “Here was my boyhood hero phoning to persuade me to come and be part of this exciting project. A dream come true and I didn’t have to think twice about it. Now it’s amazing to have someone I respect so much holding me up as an example to follow. Everyone tells you that if you work hard and are patient, good things will come to you.
“You have to keep the faith and stick at it because you never know when your chance is going to come and you have to respect the decisions of the coaching team and your teammates. Not once, when I wasn’t getting game time, did I consider moving. Never. I have a four-year contract and I expect to be around for a good few years to come. I’m Barca through and through.”
There’s a catch, however. (Isn’t there always when the current Barcelona setup is concerned?)
What Xavi was able to do, as with Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso, when he persuaded Kessie to ignore other offers and to risk joining a club that steering very close to the financial rocks on a consistent basis, was grab a highly prized young player for free — at least without a transfer fee. Each of the three men have, pound for pound, performed exceptionally well given that Barcelona have won one trophy, look sure to lift the Spanish title and, on Wednesday, could qualify for the Copa del Rey final.
The sad thing for Kessie — and indeed for Christensen — is that there’s a club debate at board level, but involving Xavi’s point of view too, about whether there’s greater value in moving on those who came in on free transfers for considerable fees. Barcelona’s debt (still well over €1 billion) is horrific, but they are even more hamstrung by LaLiga’s financial fair play (FFP) regulations, which are so stringent that the club is not allowed to boost Gavi’s salary from a junior (low six figures) to a first-team level. As a result, he will be a free agent this summer and could choose to join any other big club in Europe where his wages would be six figures per week — not per annum.
One of the ways to address that could be to transfer, say, Kessie and Christensen for a combined €80 million, thus easing the FFP restrictions and helping the seemingly nonsensical idea of Barcelona being in a position to repatriate Lionel Messi.
Xavi, rest assured, is dead against the idea of losing either man, but the situation is extremely grave. Startling measures are called for.
That, thankfully for Christensen and Kessie, is a matter for future weeks. Right now, it’s important for the Ivory Coast international, who some of his teammates address as “Mr. President,” to train exceptionally and see whether he’s on that team sheet at the Camp Nou when his favourite rivals come calling.
Oh, and by the way, it’s not because of the “Mr. President” nickname that he gives a military salute whenever he scores. The moniker comes from his AC Milan days when, mistakenly, he parked in the president’s spot at the training ground and was gently teased with the nickname thereafter — and it’s stuck.
“I had just started at the club and every day, when I arrived for training, I would just park in the first space I saw,” Kessie said. “So this day, I get to training and park my car as usual. Then I see the security guard running towards me waving his hands about. It turns out that I’d parked in the president’s space without realising. The lads in changing room had a good laugh at my expense when they heard about it. They couldn’t believe it.”
No, the salute is something very different. More meaningful.
“I always salute when I score as a tribute to my dad, who was a soldier and who passed away when I was a young kid,” he said. “I know he’s watching over me and I think he’d be very proud of me, especially when I score goals.”
If Madrid see Kessie saluting on Wednesday, it’ll be very bad news. Again. If Barcelona see it, either it’ll be a sign that the likeable midfielder is becoming indispensable to Xavi or ripe for transferring as far as the real club president is concerned.
Only time will tell.