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 will be stepping out onto the pitch with Real Madrid in Kiev on Saturday for the UEFA Champions League final.
If you did smirk, you might not have been the only one to find the idea amusing. Dani 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.
While sun-seeking tourists love to travel in the opposite direction, few Spanish footballers have made success of a switch to Germany. Madrid icon Raul made a spectacularly fine fist of it to leave Schalke with a smile, but — after struggling over the same two years — Jose Manuel Jurado headed out of Gelsenkirchen with a grimace.
Watch: Carvajal on life in Leverkusen six months in!
As those two left the Bundesliga, Carvajal arrived as did Joselu, who had also found the route to the Madrid first team barred and bolted, as well as Alvaro Dominguez and Javi Martinez. Only the Bayern Munich man remains, but Carvajal — albeit for only one season — was just as big a hit.
Slim chances in 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.
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.
Arrival in Leverkusen
"To get such a player as him is of course no easy task," explained then-B04 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."
Matters off the pitch are far more easy to handle if matters don't go well on it. But ask any Leverkusen fan and they will tell you: things could hardly have gone better for Carvajal and Die Werkself.
Völler had stated that Carvajal "fits our style of play very well", and the former Germany striker and coach was proven gloriously right as Leverkusen's front-foot, up-and-at-'em philosophy — not dissimilar to Madrid's — knitted neatly with the qualities of their new acquisition.
Beating Bayern and beyond
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. 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 the league's third-best right-back behind Bayern legend Philipp Lahm and Schalke's Atsuto Uchida by bundesliga.com users, while he was included in BILD'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.
Madrid came calling
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.
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.
"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, whose heart has always been Merengue white. But for just one season his ambition was written in red and black.
And though now — as a full Spain international — he has helped Madrid complete a historic Champions League hat-trick, Carvajal got the nuts and bolts that tied all the pieces together to make him the finished article at Leverkusen.