There is something strangely romantic about the under-appreciated footballer with extraordinary talent . The biography of infamous former Reading striker Robin Friday, for example, was titled The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw. The lack of exposure probably allows a fair amount of creative license, an opportunity for nostalgia to take precedence over raw fact.
In basic terms, it is ludicrous to compare FC Zenit ’s Danny to Friday. Danny, for starters, lives in the age of mass media, satellite television, and the Internet. He also plays at a considerably higher level than Friday, having made his Zenit debut in the European Super Cup where he scored against Manchester United. And he isn’t short of admirers: anyone with more than a passing interest in Russian football is aware of his talent, and anyone who watched the last World Cup will have seen him deployed on the wing for Portugal.
But the point stands: this is a player who deserves widespread acclaim and admiration across the continent. Despite being a key player for the Russian champions (and a club in the knockout stage of the Champions League) in addition to being a regular in the squad for one of the more prominent national sides in Europe, Danny remains something of a mystery.
That was supposed to change. The next few months were going to be the most important of Danny’s career, the period when he could put himself into the consciousness of the European public. First, Zenit had qualified for the Champions League knockout stage for the first time in Danny’s spell there. Last season, they were defeated in the qualification round to Auxerre, an organised side that refused to be dragged around by Zenit’s movement, and struck from two corners. This season, they were drawn in an enticing group containing fellow Eastern European counter-attack specialists Shakhtar Donetsk, Europa League champions Porto, and apparent no-hopers APOEL. Crazily, APOEL finished top. Zenit snuck through, with a game against Benfica next on the agenda.
Second, Portugal had qualified for Euro 2012. Importantly for Danny, the reign of Carlos Queiroz had ended. Queiroz’s philosophy was horribly defensive and lacking in invention, leading to the situation at the last World Cup when Portugal managed to keep clean sheets in three of four games yet also failed to score in three. In theory, a counter-attacking game would suit Danny, but Queiroz didn’t trust him to be in the side in the first place, at least not in the roaming role Danny prefers. Under Paulo Bento Danny had more opportunities, and was starting to establish himself in the side despite withdrawals through injury.
All that, however, is no longer relevant. Last week, while training at a Zenit training camp in Italy, Danny broke down. He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He will be out for an undetermined period of time, but almost certainly won’t feature for Portugal in the Euros. Meanwhile, hopes that Zenit would get past Benfica in the Champions League have faded dramatically in his absence.
Most footballers be likened to a more famous individual talent, or at least a combination of several players. Danny is unique. He is a natural number ten, but he’s also been used out on the left for Zenit. He’ll drop increasingly deeper to collect the ball, only to travel directly towards goal from the wide, deep position. But he doesn’t drive towards a shooting position like Cristiano Ronaldo, for example. Instead, he darts inside to play passes with the outside of his right foot, either chipped balls for the forwards or driven balls into the feet of midfield runners. It’s an odd way of playing—aside from the obvious benefit of playing with his chosen foot, it’s an eccentric technique. Yet Danny depends on it. When deployed on the other flank where he’s able to use his right foot more naturally, he’s not nearly as effective.
His habit of running directly with the ball lends itself to Zenit’s style of play. They defend deep and then break quickly, which suits Danny’s particular attributes. He’s fast and is an able dribbler, but his decision-making on the break is what makes him unique. Like Mesut Ozil, he knows when to release the ball quickly and when to delay the pass to let the situation change to the attacking side’s advantage.
At the same time, he’s not a particularly efficient player. His output is probably slightly less than his talent would dictate, and sometimes he seems more of an ornament than a utensil. In possession, particularly when the opposition have men behind the ball, he sometimes tries the spectacular when a square ball would suffice; his passes are often more ‘fun’ than effective.
Zenit though have built their team around him, and Portugal should have done the same this summer. Their lack of a number nine is an on-going problem, but now they must also cope without anything resembling a number ten. Danny was the outsider, the different style of player that deserved a chance to complete the side, the equivalent of Marcos Senna for Spain in 2008.
Like Senna, Danny was born outside the country he represents at international level. Unlike Senna, he barely played any club football in that nation , having been discarded by Sporting Lisbon at an early age. Understandably therefore, he’s not exactly regarded Portugal’s prodigal son, as Andy Brassell touched on. Not only is Danny globally under-appreciated, he’s not even rated in his own country.
Last October, Danny withdrew from the Portugal squad before the game against Denmark, initially for ‘personal reasons.’ It later emerged he had found a potentially cancerous growth on his abdomen. Thankfully, his operation was a success.
His injury is one of the biggest footballing disappointments of 2012, but, put in perspective, we should be thankful he’ll one day return to the pitch. Maybe then he’ll get widespread acclaim – if not, it will only make his story more memorable to those who love him.