Carvajal's first real taste of first team football came at the BayArena. - © imago sportfotodienst
Carvajal's first real taste of first team football came at the BayArena. - © imago sportfotodienst

Dani Carvajal: Real Madrid's trophy-laden right-back, made in the Bundesliga


What do you get if you take a Spanish full-back, Madrid born and bred, and plant him at Bayer Leverkusen? No laughing at the back, it's not a joke. For those who find it funny, wipe the smile from your faces, because the punchline - Dani Carvajal - is a serial trophy collector with Real Madrid.

If you did smirk, you might not have been the only one to find the idea amusing. Carvajal might have thought his agent was pulling one of his highly talented legs when it was suggested Leverkusen would be the ideal destination for him to — ultimately — build a rabidly successful career with Madrid.

It certainly is the scenic route to a first team spot at the Santiago Bernabeu, which lies just a short commute from his hometown Leganes in the Spanish capital's southern suburbs, but it is one Carvajal felt compelled to take in summer 2012.

Watch: From the archives - Carvajal on life in Leverkusen in 2012

First-team opportunities in the famous white shirt had been limited: a pre-season tour game here, a friendly there as first-team boss Jose Mourinho, with a wealth of talent to pick from, only rarely dipped into the Castilla, Madrid's reserve team.

Picked out as a future star and a potential 'new Sergio Ramos', the full-back that had performed so majestically for the club's reserves found there was a massive difference between lording it over fellow youthful wannabes and reigning supreme among the titans at one of the planet's biggest clubs.

With Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa both ahead of himself in Mourinho's plans, Carvajal sought an alternative, and Leverkusen could hardly believe their luck that they were it.

A fresh-faced Carvajal arrived in Germany, much to everyone's shock - imago sportfotodienst

"To get such a player as him is of course no easy task," explained then-Leverkusen CEO Wolfgang Holzhäuser, the glee apparent in his words. "Real Madrid isn't the sort of club that you simply go up to and say, 'Give us a player!' He's known as one of the biggest hopes as a defender in Spain. After a long time watching him, we managed to bring him in — we were quicker than the others."

A hasty purchase can be a gamble, but Leverkusen's risk was measured: they were tying one of Spain's hottest prospects to a five-year deal. Madrid were also willing to make a wager on Carvajal, whom Mourinho himself had recommended to Leverkusen's sporting director, Rudi Völler.

The La Liga giants had a good reason for inserting a buy-back option in the contract that would give them the chance over the following three summers — just as they did later with Alvaro Morata — to bring Carvajal home again at a bargain basement price with valuable experience gained. It was a win-win-win deal for all three parties.

His home away from home for the 2012/13 season was on the banks of the Rhine though where Carvajal — then aged 20 — was faced with a number of challenges, on and off the pitch.

"I learned a lot, especially living alone there, going to another country, another league," he said after his season at the BayArena where he tasted Bundesliga, DFB Cup and Europa League football for the very first time.

"I matured a lot as a person, and was able to compete in elite football and European competition. Being young, you acquire a lot of experience, and the tactical and physical aspects make you a better player.

"Tactically, I'm more complete. Coming up against footballers from around the world makes you improve. I have reinforced my strengths, such as anticipation, speed and crossing."

Carvajal faced some of the world's best, including future Real Madrid teammate David Alaba - imago sportfotodienst

Völler had stated that Carvajal "fits our style of play very well", and the former Germany striker and coach was proven gloriously right as Die Werkself's front-foot, up-and-at-'em philosophy — not dissimilar to Madrid's — knitted neatly with the qualities of their new acquisition.

Following "a great debut" — according to Völler himself — against Freiburg on Matchday 2, four of the eight assists Carvajal registered that season came in his first nine appearances, including the cross that enabled Sidney Sam to be the match-winning hero of a rare victory at eventual treble winners Bayern on Matchday 9.

That was tangible proof of his potental and the improvements he felt came quickly working under Leverkusen's coaching tandem, Sami Hyppiä and Sascha Lewandowski.

Carvajal's only Bundesliga goal came against Hoffenheim. All in all he scored one goal and registered seven assists in 32 Bundesliga games. - imago sportfotodienst

There was even need for him to work out a goal celebration routine when he found the net with the decisive strike against Hoffenheim on Matchday 13.

Come the end of a wildly positive campaign, Carvajal was named in BILD newspaper's Team of the Season along with Bundesliga staples such as Mats Hummels and Mario Götze.

"For me it was unthinkable a year ago," Carvajal admitted. "It is recognition that I appreciate very much, especially for a young boy who is making his debut in first-team football. It's the most I could have hoped for this year."

With Leverkusen finishing third, just a point behind the previous season's champions Borussia Dortmund, and impressively securing a place in the UEFA Champions League group stages for the 2013/14 campaign, Carvajal could legitimately have hoped for still more from another 12 months at the BayArena.

Carvajal matched up against Gotze and later met him in the Bundesliga Team of the Season - imago sportfotodienst

But the backdraft of the Spanish full-back trailing a blaze through the Bundesliga in a stunning season in Germany was that a fire was lit under Madrid. With their belief in his potential now confirmed by season-long proof, they quickly seized upon the opportunity to reel Carvajal back in, and even moved Ramos to centre back to accomodate him.

Cue heartbreak for Leverkusen fans, but the delights of Cologne's majestic cathedral - just along the river from Leverkusen - or anywhere else for that matter were never going to be a match for one who worshipped at the church of Di Stefano, Puskas and the galacticos.

"I consider myself a Madridista, I was born around Madrid, I have worn that shirt for 10 years and I feel Madrid to the core," Carvajal told Marca as his Real return was being sown up and he could entertain thoughts of finally fulfilling that dream he had had while watching his idols as a boy.

Carvajal's career has been trophy after trophy. Recent history hasn't been too bad for Leverkusen, either. - IMAGO/Mike Egerton

"It sounds like a myth, but it's true. You think, 'Imagine if one day I get to play down there at the Bernabeu.'"

Since returning to Madrid, it has been a recurring dream turned reality for Carvajal, who, on June 1 2024, added his 25th trophy in white, and it was a record equalling sixth European Cup, cementing his status as an all-time footballing legend.

Just a few weeks earlier Leverkusen had displayed the kind of winning mentality Carvajal is famed for, completing an unprecedented unbeaten domestic double under his former national teammate Xabi Alonso who he undoubtedly forged a path for from Spain.

A historical peak for both club and player, there's little doubt Carvajal would have been casting an eye over at his second team, as without each other, their ascent to the summit of world football may have never happened.