The curious case of Portuguese sensation Dani

The curious case of Portuguese sensation Dani

Portuguese, devilishly handsome, full of himself and self-centred. A product of the Sporting Clube de Portugal academy, fond of a step-over or two and a footballer who made his name in the Premier League. There the comparisons end, for we are not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo.

In 1996, some seven years before the multiple Ballon d’Or winning phenomenon signed for Manchester United, countryman and fellow wunderkind, Daniel da Cruz Carvalho, or just ‘Dani’ to you and I, arrived amidst a blaze of publicity at West Ham United.

Harry Redknapp’s ‘United Nations’ – which included Marc Rieper (Denmark), current manager Slaven Bilić (Croatia), Luděk Mikloško (Czech Republic), Marco Boogers (Holland) and more – had a new kid on the block, one who was destined to be a heartbreaker on and off the pitch.

Just 19 years of age, Dani had already made his Sporting debut two years previously, in a team which was replete with stars including Luís Figo and, prior to his signing for the east London outfit, he’d also won a first cap for his country against England at Wembley.

In the aftermath of that game the football grapevine had been working its magic and, allegedly, Dani was unhappy at being used so sparingly at club level, despite the fact that he was still learning the tools of his trade.

His career oozed promise but the inherent need to go from 0 to 60 as quickly as possible led to the first of many brushes with authority. Sporting manager, Carlos Queiroz, later to join Ronaldo at United, had grown tired of his antics and the constant jousting from the player’s agent pertaining to a lack of game time.

Ironically, the 1-1 draw under the old twin towers was the game that convinced Redknapp to persuade his board that they needed to move heaven and earth to sign the boy on loan, with a view to a permanent transfer.

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Much of the negotiations had gone on behind the scenes without the press getting even a whiff of it, which was highly unusual at the time. Rumours suggested it was because – were the Hammers able to pull off the coup – the directors were hopeful it would enthuse a whole new supporter dynamic and get the tills ringing and the turnstiles moving again.

Here we had a player who was already a model and who wouldn’t have looked out of place in any of the boy bands that were popular at the time. Indeed, his perma-tanned features, chiselled cheekbones and jet black coiffured mane was the polar opposite look of his strike partner Iain Dowie.

Known for his witty one-liners, Redknapp surpassed himself after the press conference to announce Dani’s signing. “My missus fancies him,” he’d told reporters. “Even I don’t know whether to play him or f**k him.”

All jokes aside, there was serious business to attend to. Redknapp’s wheeler dealing facade and reputation were the butt of as much comedy, if not more, than the Adonis that had landed in east London. But ticket sales were up and media requests to the club were constant. Not bad for a side that were destined to stay in mid-table for the majority of the season.

Dani and Dowie would affectionately be labelled ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the tabloids not long after partnering in West Ham’s front line, whilst a surge of interest from the wives, girlfriends and daughters of the match-going Hammer were exactly as Redknapp and the board had planned.

There needed to be substance, however. Could this guy actually play football? What was he doing at West Ham if so? Why were no top clubs interested in his services and was he really just a playboy at heart? All questions that required an answer.

Dani emphatically obliged, or so it appeared at the time, on debut at White Hart Lane. A London derby against one of their bitter rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, arguably wasn’t the time to throw young Dani into the lion’s den but it proved to be a masterstroke from Redknapp.

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Fearless in his application and keen to show Sporting what they were missing, Dani was involved in everything good that West Ham had to offer on that Monday night in February ‘96. The TV cameras were in attendance too, showcasing the youngster’s admirable skill set to a scarily over-interested English footballing public.

When Dani fortuitously headed home the winner – Spurs keeper Ian Walker, in trying to clear the ball, palmed it straight onto Dani’s head – the headlines were already written. And long before social media was even a thing, his was a face in every paper, gossip column and magazine. Everyone wanted a piece.

Though his career in east London would prove to be almost as short-lived as the notorious Boogers, in that one moment, Dani had the whole country in his thrall.

The post-match interview alongside Dowie who, respectfully, was far less pleasing to look at, amused all those who had tuned in. Man, he was pretty.

It wasn’t just on the terraces where there was huge anticipation each time Dani turned out for the Hammers either. He’d made the requisite impression on his teammates too, half the time for the wrong reasons. Training was a nuisance for him, and if he could get away with not doing so, that was Dani’s preference.

For all of his affable cockney geezer wit and charm, Redknapp could be a bastard to anyone who got on his wrong side, and it soon became clear that the relationship with his new star signing wasn’t going to last for long.

Teenagers Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard had also been brought into the first-team squad and both were working much, much harder to prove their worth than their Portuguese contemporary.

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Though he scored another goal against Manchester City some six weeks after his emergence onto the Premier League scene, a mid-season break in Spain all but sealed Dani’s fate at the club. He’d been given permission to leave the team hotel one afternoon but hadn’t reported back for training the following morning.

“Come 1.30pm, there was still no sign of him,” Redknapp recalled in his autobiography. “We were relaxing by the pool … suddenly there’s this tanned figure walking towards us, hair immaculate, sunglasses on, every inch the film star. He couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, give me an explanation. All the lads knew he had picked up a bird, maybe even two or three, but there was no way he was going to tell me.” 

Another missed training session at home upon their return, plus tabloid pictures of him in a nightclub from the previous evening was the final straw.

Placed in the reserves before his contract was cancelled by the club, Dani had gone from hero to zero in the space of three months and only nine appearances for the club.

Despite a decreasing fitness level through lack of training and matches, he was still picked for Portugal to play at the Atlanta Olympics. He’d be joined by current Porto coach, Nuno, Nuno Gomes and Hugo Porfirio – who played at West Ham the following season – amongst others.

A decent set of personal performances led to the Portuguese side making it as far as the bronze medal match, where they were comprehensively dispatched 5-0 by Brazil. Ajax became aware of him through Johan Cruyff, who happened to be in the country doing some commentary and punditry work.

Signing for the club for the start of the 1996/97 season, Dani made a similarly spectacular entrance in the Eredivisie, prompting Cruyff to ensure the youngster was handed the iconic No.14 shirt. The maestro also appeared to be taken in far too quickly because Dani never came close to hitting the heights that his start had promised.

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In four years at the club, he wasn’t considered a regular starter – making just 72 appearances in all competitions – and by the end of his time in the Dutch capital, his love for the game was already on the wane.

A five-game dalliance working under José Mourinho at Benfica was similarly destined to fail and when Atlético Madrid came calling, it already felt like the last chance saloon for the 24-year-old. Then in the Segunda División, Fernando Torres and current Atleti assistant, Germán Burgos, would be amongst his colleagues.

After just missing promotion back to La Liga in his first season in Spain, Dani helped Los Rojiblancos to the title in 2001/02. It would, however, prove to be his last meaningful contribution. By the end of the following campaign, his disdain for the beautiful game saw him hang up his boots at the age of 27.

Injuries hadn’t blighted his career, but his was a tale of a life well lived rather than one that could conceivably have been Ronaldo-esque if he were willing to be as single-minded in his desire to be the best as the Real Madrid man. To coin a Sinatra phrase: he did it his way.

After disappearing from the limelight for a while, Dani would resurface on Portuguese television in a variety of roles. It’s clear that a love of the camera and the bright lights is where he always felt most comfortable. With a legion of female admirers still in tow and the looks to ensure that he remained the centre of attention, TV companies often overlooked his awkwardness, particularly on live broadcasts.

Whether it was a tongue-in-cheek move or a ratings dream, Dani was eventually given the presenting role on the Portuguese version of Strictly Come Dancing. The popularity of the show propelled him back into the national consciousness and despite ostensibly being a failure throughout his professional life, he has continued to retain the affections of a nation.

Off the screen, he can now be found occasionally plying his former trade in the Portuguese Legends XI, a long way from the bright lights of the Boleyn, the Amsterdam ArenA and the Vicente Calderón.

By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove

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