Feature

Dani Ceballos | In my own words

There’s a story I like to tell about the hardest goal I’ve ever scored in my career.

Not the hardest because of the technique, because it was from 30 yards out or because I beat six or seven players. No, this was the hardest emotionally. 

I was born in Utrera, the same town as Jose Antonio Reyes, and started playing football when I was very young, probably five or six years old. There are two teams you can support in that area: Betis or Sevilla. I have always loved Betis. 

I remember being a year younger than all the other players at my first club, Utrera, but whenever we had a friendly tournament or a game, the coach would play me.

I was able to stand out and that was where my connection to football began. I had the chance to continue developing as a player and then eventually Betis gave me the opportunity to make my dream of becoming a professional footballer come true.

I owe Betis everything. They’re the club that supported me and showed me the faith you need as a player to become a footballer. Betis is my home - they have a special place in my heart. 

Dani poses at Estadio Benito Villamarin ahead of the 2017 Seville derby

So fast-forward to January 13, 2019 and just try to imagine how difficult this game was for me. I was midway through my second season with Real Madrid and was named on the bench for our La Liga game against Betis at Estadio Benito Villamarin. My home.

I’d been back once before with Madrid and didn’t play, so I wasn’t thinking about it too much. But then with 15 minutes to go and the score at 1-1, I came on. Then in the 88th minute, we got a free-kick and a chance to win the game - and I wasn’t going to let anyone else take it. 

A lot of people didn’t really understand why I took that free-kick, but I think when you consider everything, I had a chance to score a goal and I was a Real Madrid player. It was probably one of the hardest goals of my career, because it meant taking three points away from my old club, but the most important thing is to be a professional and do your best for the club you’re representing.

Dani fires home a late winner against his boyhood club

It was a strange feeling to wear a different shirt in Seville and I must admit that I wasn’t happy with how I left Betis, but these things aren’t always within your control. I spent five years as a professional at Betis and I think I had some of my best moments in football there.

I can remember my debut, against Real Sociedad in 2014, when I came off the bench. It’s a bittersweet memory for me because, although I was lucky enough to make my debut in that game, it ended with us getting relegated to the second tier. 

That was a heart-breaking moment for me. You have to understand, Betis are a club that should always be in the top division. Making my debut is a nice memory but at the same time it isn’t because that was the game that confirmed our relegation to the second tier.

Dani takes on Toni Kroos during his Betis days

The following season, I played a lot but I didn’t actually start out with the first team - I started the season with Betis B. Gradually I won the confidence of the B team coach, became a key player for them and got the opportunity to have three or four training sessions with the first team. 

I made my full debut against Lugo in the Copa del Rey, if I remember rightly, and ended up playing 120 minutes – the 90 minutes plus the 30 minutes of extra time. I think that’s the most special game of my Betis career because we were playing at home and we managed to get through to the next round.

I went on to make 33 appearances that season and made a big contribution, scoring seven goals and providing five assists. I remember that year in the second tier as being a really special, positive year for me.

Dani battles for possession with Lionel Messi following Betis' promotion

You see, when I look back now, I have only positive memories of Betis. As a player, you’re always going to have ups and downs, but at Betis I experienced so many positive moments. Betis were always in my corner.

I spent around four years there and even though the situation at the club wasn’t the best when I was there, I always did my best to make sure they stayed in the top division, where I believe they belong. They’ve come on in leaps and bounds since then - selling me and Fabian Ruiz meant they were able to rebuild and now they’re established as one of the best seven teams in Spain.

By the time the 2017 European Under-21 Championship came around, I only had one year left on my contract with Betis. I never got an offer from Betis to stay at the club, it was only after the Euros when there were lots of clubs interested because I had been named Player of the Tournament. 

Dani is awarded the Player of the Tournament award at the 2017 U-21 Euros

When you have lots of big clubs interested in you on the back of your form during the season and in a tournament, I don’t think that’s the kind of opportunity you can pass up. You don’t get two opportunities to sign for a club like Real Madrid, so I ended up joining them. 

I always remember talking to Joaquin about this. He’s had a wonderful career but there was one point when Madrid were interested, so one day he comes over to me.

“Dani,” he says. “If Madrid ever come in for you, don’t think twice. One of my regrets is never having worn the white shirt.”

So I signed for Real Madrid and, let me tell you, when you join a club like Real, you need to be very mentally strong and realise the kind of club you’re going to. You have to realise that they basically have the best players in the world in every position. 

Dani is unveiled at the Bernabeu

It’s not easy to join such a big club at the age of just 20, but I had a great two years there and was able to learn a lot from some of the best players around. Perhaps I didn’t play as much as I might have done, for one reason or another, but my two years there helped me become a better player.

Like I said, opportunities were hard to come by at Real, so I needed to find game time this season. I knew Hector Bellerin from Spain and I get on really well with him away from football. I told him I was thinking of joining Arsenal and he told me not to think twice because this is a great city and a great club and that I was going to have a great time. 

Arsenal is a massive club that has everything it takes to be one of the best clubs in the world - and I think it’s there already. I still have the same hopes as when I joined: I’m desperate to help achieve the team’s aims and I’m really happy to help us do that.

Dani's first day as a Gunner

The fans are very passionate here and they love the players. It made it much easier for me to adapt because they make you feel like you’ve been at the club forever. I love the way everyone’s treated me. They’ve put a lot of faith in me.

I’ve had to overcome a few challenges since I arrived, too. When you join a new league like the Premier League, the intensity is very high and the adaptation period is a bit trickier. I was also unlucky that I picked up my first injury in six or seven years as a professional footballer. 

That came at a time when the team was struggling a little bit, so it was really tough watching at home because I could see that the team was in a difficult place and it was infuriating not being able to help. I’m back with the team now and I’m trying to give everything I have to help us recoup the points we dropped in the first half of the season.

Dani celebrates his first goal for the club, against Standard Liege

We have to be realistic. We’re a long way off the Premier League leaders but our aim is to take it game by game and improve. We’ve got a new coach and we’re still alive in three competitions – the FA Cup and the Europa League too. 

I think we need to keep gelling and focus on playing attractive football that the fans enjoy. 

But the most important thing is to win and, as you’ve learned from my story, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the three points.

Dani Ceballos

 

 

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