Danny The Champion of the World: A Decade of the Portuguese Maestro

A young boy thrown into a alien world, forced to improvise to find his way and gain approval: Roald Dahl might as well have been talking about the career of Daniel Miguel Alves Gomes in Russia when he wrote his classic children’s novel. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, he trod the same path as Cristiano Ronaldo from Madeira to Sporting Lisbon, and found life more difficult than his younger illustrious compatriot to make an initial impression. A €3 million transfer to Dinamo Moscow, two years after Ronaldo’s groundbreaking move to Manchester United, offered him a chance to kickstart his career, and he never looked back. After a decade in this country, having arrived as a fresh-faced relatively unknown 21-year-old playmaker, it is fitting that Danny leaves a champion.

Even in a struggling Dinamo Moscow side, Danny's value increased ten-fold during his time there

Even in a struggling Dinamo Moscow side, Danny’s value increased ten-fold during his time there

Throughout his career Danny has been known for his calm ball-playing authority and creativity rather than physical stature, something which probably accounted for his versatility forged from being moved out wide on occassion. Within just over three years, despite finishing 8th, 14th and 6th in his three full seasons with Dinamo, he had become one of the world’s most expensive midfielders as Zenit hoovered up his obvious talent for €30 million. His arrival and early success at bedding down in such a different environment to his adolescence was helped by the prescence of six other Portuguese speaking teammates, including the current Brazilian national team captain Thiago Silva, but he had to develop a relationship with the fans to become accepted as more than just another fleet-footed but light-weight Latin player.

One simple way was to score goals. In four seasons in Portugal, he had only managed six, a tally he matched in his debut season for a creditable return as he settled into the team, feeding the likes of Brazilian striker Derlei with sumptuous passes. The facts are that he virtually doubled his scoring rate during his time at Zenit compared to in Moscow, but for a newcomer in a struggling side his quality was a rare bright light in a difficult period for Dinamo. Although they stumbled across the line to qualify for European competition for the first time in eight years in 2008, Danny had already moved on to more glamorous surroundings, scoring the winner against Manchester United in Monaco to claim the Supercup for his new employers, just a week after scoring the winner against Spartak Nalchik.

Danny battled past the initial prejudice surrounding his history, and disputed tattoo, with Dinamo to win over the Petrovsky faithful

Danny battled past the initial prejudice surrounding his history, and disputed tattoo, with Dinamo to win over the Petrovsky faithful

His penchant for inking his arm with signifcant markers in his life came to light again recently when he revealed his latest design based on the famous River Neva, a homage to his hugely succesful seven-year stint in St Petersburg, but despite that debut winner, life did not begin smoothly for him after his record-breaking move. Another tattoo on his right wrist of the letter ‘D’ in swirling cyrillic was too similar to Dinamo’s crest for some, and although he denied it was chosen to show his loyalty to Zenit’s rivals (it was a reference to his initial, he claimed), fans demanded that he ‘cover his shame’. The weight of his transfer fee – a record at that time for a Russian club by some distance – in the midst of the global financial crisis rested heavily on his shoulders, so once again he had to prove himself. On top of all this, he had to earn his place alongside the scintilating Andrei Arshavin, whose protracted move to Europe was held up until January after endless negotiations with Barcelona, Tottenham and finally Arsenal, in the UEFA Cup champions’ team.

Once again he rose to the challenge, as he launched himself into Zenit’s top ten all-time goalscorers, as well as becoming one select few to have scored and assisted over 100 Russia Premier League goals. With Gazprom’s mammoth investment, he has been blessed to share the pitch with stars such as Hulk, Axel Witsel, Salomon Rondon, Bruno Alves, Alexander Kerzhakov amongst others, which has certainly not harmed his record. With his ingenuity holding the attack together, Zenit have enjoyed their most fruitful period in their history, finishing in the top two for the last five consecutive seasons, winning the title three times, as well as a Russian Cup victory.

After a decade of brilliance, Danny leaves the Russian game with a well deserved smile

After a decade of brilliance, Danny leaves the Russian game with a well deserved smile

A lot has been made of foreign players failing to adapt to life in Russia, or struggling to build a connection with the fans, but for Danny, who has learned the language and whose two children are enrolled in Zenit’s academy, this has never been a problem. Vagner Love is a notable addition to the list of ‘legionaires’ to have bonded powerfully with supporters after his legendary spell at CSKA Moscow, and Danny fully deserves to join the list of the greatest imports to have graced the Russian game. The impact he has left on the team will only be truly measured once he is gone, with most of the talk suggesting he will head to Turkey, while his legacy is already secured, in St Petersburg at least.

 

Recently, Nike released a historically-themed alternative team photo with the main squad players in imperialistic uniforms. The choreography of the shot is highly revealing. Andre Vilas Boas is seated in the centre hunched over a map contemplating his next military conquest, while to his right is the golden boy of the previous decade, Andrey Arshavin, taking his position as a senior general. Despite his star having been on a gradual wane over the last few years, his natural ability earns him this position. More prescient, however, is Danny seated to the left. His more relaxed body position is a perfect mirror of his status; whereas Arshavin has had to peer anxiously over his commanding officer’s shoulder for a glimpse of action in recent times, the Portuguese man-o-war can sit back safe in the knowledge that his job is done. While he may not have conquered the world, he was without question the prince of St Petersburg who will never be forgotten.

Author: Andrew Flint

I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…

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