The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful: The Story of Former Wonderkid Dani’s Loan Spell at West Ham

Dani West Ham

“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.”

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Whilst these are the immortal words of Derek Zoolander, Ben Stiller’s titular character in the 2001 comedy, they could very easily have been uttered by former Portuguese wonderkid Dani, who was seemingly on a one-man quest to discover just what else could be achieved in life.

Born in Lisbon into a wealthy family, Dani just simply didn’t require the money that success as a footballer would bring. He had grown up living on an exclusive street for the elite in Lisbon that consisted of high class, upmarket stores such as Gucci, Louis Vitton and Prada, shops that he frequented regularly. Whilst other footballers are fighting tooth and nail just to escape the poverty their families had been living in, Dani went into the game already set for life.

Breaking through the ranks at Sporting CP in the mid-’90s, following in the footsteps of a certain Luis Figo, it was predicted that the two of them would combine to lead Portugal’s golden generation to glory in the years to come. There was just one small problem, Dani seemingly had extremely little interest in actually playing football.

Having won the U18 European Championships in 1994 before dazzling at the 1995 U20 World Cup in Qatar, finishing runner up in the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards as Portugal reached the semis, Dani found game time a little scarce for his liking, presumably as it halted his steady progression to fame and fortune. Having already made his debut for Portugal in a friendly against England, he had his eyes on a place in the Euro ’96 squad and the spotlight that would come with it. It was then, with just nine senior appearances under his belt in his fledgling career, and still just nineteen years of age, the Portuguese starlet swapped the charming, coastal hills of Lisbon for the bright lights of London, joining West Ham on loan.

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To be fair to the lad, imagine rocking up in London looking like he did. Long, floppy hair resembling a nineties Di Caprio. Big, beautiful green ‘come-to-bed’ eyes that could pierce your soul. A smouldering grin that could melt an ice statue. The queue of girls vying for his affection must have been as long as the Thames, can you blame him for perhaps taking his eye off the ball?

The nineties were a funny time, with the introduction of the Premier League and football’s ongoing globalisation attracting new flamboyant stars from across the continent and beyond. The era of Shampoo-endorsing, six-pack having, sarong wearing hunks was upon us, and it was a far cry from the old guard who’d nail three pints on their way to training and could have qualified for a free bus pass by the ripe old age of twenty-seven. Dani was the embodiment of this, moonlighting as a model for various fashion designers across the world. In a beautiful twist of irony, Dani’s strike partner at Upton Park was Iain Dowie, and the pair were dubbed ‘Beauty and the Beast’ by the media.

Even his new gaffer ‘Arry Redknapp struggled with just how handsome he was, stating that “Dani is so good looking I don’t know whether to play him or fuck him.” Especially worrying for Dani, seeing as Redknapp isn’t known for being the sharpest knife in the drawer, having infamously set up an offshore bank account under his dog’s name with his own date of birth and thinking this made him a criminal mastermind. Fortunately for our young heartthrob, ‘Arry quickly figured out it was best to let him impress him with his tricks on the pitch rather than in the bedroom, giving him an eight-minute run out on his debut against Nottingham Forest.

It was against Spurs a week later that he truly announced himself to the Hammers fans however, making his full debut on a moist Monday night at White Hart Lane. It didn’t take him long to make his mark, as he scored what would prove to be the games only goal. ‘You make your own luck’ is a common expression in football, but what he did in those first four minutes to warrant Ian Walker slapping the ball off his forehead remains a mystery, but the footballing Gods must have been smiling down on him as it cannoned into the back of the net.

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From there on out, however, skipping around in the rain, Dani lead the Spurs defenders on a merry little dance, acting as the Pied Piper as he cajoled this way and that, pirouetting and swivelling his hips in a manner that Shakira would be proud of. The young Adonis was at the very heart of everything good that West Ham did that night, and the Hammers fans sat up and took notice, giving him a standing ovation as he was subbed off in the 66th minute.

It wasn’t just the fans that young Dani caught the eye of however, as the press spotted their latest golden boy, and splashed the wonderkid’s face all over the papers – in both the Sport and Gossip sections. One of the back pages led with the headline ‘Lock up your daughters! Dani has arrived!’ Having been linked romantically with pretty much any girl that had made an appearance on Top of the Pops or on Page 3 of The Star, Dani’s love of a party became infamous, with him putting those dancing, rhythmic hips to good use on the dance floor until the early hours of the morning a few nights a week. The ladies rumoured to have been amongst Dani’s conquests include Kylie Minogue and Louise Nurding, who would later become Louise Redknapp – something which Dani later claimed didn’t help his cause for a permanent contract.

It’s pretty difficult to keep your Saturday night antics from your gaffer when you play Sunday League, turning up the next day hungover to fuck, knackered and stinking of Sambuca shots, so it is no shock that ‘Arry quickly got wind of his antics seeing as the paparazzi had their cameras glued to him 24/7. Not that he ever tried particularly hard to hide it, somehow ending up on the red carpet alongside Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis for the premiere of Twelve Monkeys. It probably didn’t help that he quickly decided training was getting in the way of his extra-curricular activities either, and so swiftly began to give it a miss whenever possible.

Redknapp quickly began to tire of the young playboy, his game time decreasing by the week, but it was after a squad trip to Spain that their relationship really began fragmenting.

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Dani insists that he started to be unfairly accused of misdemeanours, and that he was told that the reason Redknapp dropped him was so that he had a stronger negotiation stance with Sporting and sign him on the cheap. This enraged the maverick midfielder, who felt that his chances to play at the Euros was being snatched away from him, and he admits that he took to ignoring any instructions from Redknapp during training and lost all respect for the wheeler-dealer.

‘Arry, on the other hand, claimed in his autobiography that Dani had failed to attend training, instead swaggering down to the poolside where the rest of the players were relaxing after their morning session. “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”. Who can blame the poor man for not letting a little thing like training get in the way of a night like that?

While both Dani and Redknapp’s stories differ slightly, and the truth is probably somewhere in between, what isn’t in doubt is that he quickly dropped out of favour, scoring just one more goal for the Hammers, after coming on as a sub in a 4-2 win against Man City. Whilst his appearances on the pitch and at training became increasingly rare, his nightclub rendezvous became more and more frequent. His spell in East London that had started with a bang on that damp Monday night and promised fireworks soon fizzled out to an underwhelming conclusion, with Redknapp tearing up the youngster’s loan contract early and sending him back to Portugal.

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Sporting were suitably unimpressed by Dani’s short spell at West Ham and were more than happy to let him join Ajax after Johan Cruyff saw a little bit of himself in the young Portuguese starlet. So much so, he gifted him his famed number 14 shirt. During the following four years in Amsterdam, where one can only guess at how much Dani enjoyed himself, he would appear regularly for the Eredivise side without ever becoming an undisputed starter. He played eighty-odd times, winning a league title in ’98 and guiding the Dutch side to the Champions League semis in ’97.

From there, Dani had a short-lived controversial couple of months back in Benfica, joining a side managed by a young Jose Mourinho. To be fair to the lad, he managed to last just an impressively few five games before being indefinitely suspended by the club after skipping numerous training sessions and repeatedly being photographed out after curfew. His appearance on a talk show on Portuguese TV didn’t really do much to change the minds of the powers that be at the club, with him showing very little remorse and basically asking why they bothered signing him when they knew what he was like. Which is, admittedly, a very good question.

Buy this iconic Jose Mourinho poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy this iconic Jose Mourinho poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

Come December 2000, the next side to take a gamble on the potential of the young male model, now just a month shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, was an Atletico Madrid side that had slipped down into the Segunda Division. It was quite the fall from grace for the Spaniards who had been competing with the best in Europe in the Champions League just two seasons earlier and were still playing in the UEFA Cup the season of their relegation.

Atletico had witnessed the brilliance of Dani first hand in a Champions League quarter-final a couple of years earlier, when he scored quite possibly the best goal of his career in extra time to send the Dutch side through. As the ball was squared to Dani about ten yards outside the centre of the box, he ran onto it and his wand of a left foot connected perfectly first time, drilling it over the goalkeeper, where it dipped into the far top right corner.

This glimpse of Dani’s undoubted quality must have been enough to convince them that he was the man to propel them back into La Liga, and Dani did play a fairly significant role in getting them back into the big time without ever being a key feature of the side. Playing nineteen league games, starting ten of them, for the club in his first half a season, he scored four goals as Los Colchoneros finished in a disappointing fourth place, failing to bounce straight back up.

At the second time of asking though, Atletico would win the league at a canter, finishing eight points clear of Racing Santander. Dani would feature in the fifth most games for Atletico during this season, join with young boy wonder Fernando Torres, although he would only start seventeen of these with Luis Aragones deciding that his impact was greater when coming on off the bench against tiring legs. Unfortunately for Dani, his solitary season in La Liga was plagued with injuries and he would only start one more game for Atletico. They decided against offering him a new deal, and Dani once again became a free agent at the age of 27.

A few clubs were interested, including Martin O’Neill’s Celtic side, who managed to coax Dani into going over to Scotland for a trial. Dani must have stepped off the plane, looked around a cold, wet Glasgow and thought “this isn’t for me”. He was not a man who was built for Scotland, every inch of him was crying out to be topless on a beach, sipping on cocktails next to whichever model he was dating that week. Which is exactly what he decided to do.

Retiring from football at the tender age of 27 is usually a story that is tinged with sadness, and to an extent it is. A wonderkid who failed to fulfill his promise in footballing terms. However, I’m sure that Dani has no qualms with his decision, seeing as he was never particularly interested in turning up when he was playing. Instead, he decided to focus his attention full time to doing what he was best at, and the thing he enjoyed most. Being absolutely, ridiculously, sickeningly handsome. After hanging up his boots he was able to become a full-time professional model, whilst also blessing television screens across Portugal, becoming a TV presenter and hosting the Portuguese version of Strictly Come Dancing, amongst other shows.

So despite the fact that Dani never would live up to his true footballing potential, he has lived a life that anybody would be envious of. He would fulfil his true destiny of being the most beautiful man in any room he walked into, whilst also dabbling with playing football for some of Europe’s most famous teams, becoming a fashion model and a TV presenter. He walked on red carpets, frequented some of the most exclusive nightclubs across Europe and could have any girl he wanted with a cheeky grin and a wink. A life Zoolander himself would be jealous of. Perhaps a more apt quote would be “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good at football. And I plan on finding out what that is.” And boy oh boy did Dani find it.