Dani Carvajal – Real Madrid’s unlikely Champions League hero who laid foundations with Di Stefano

“I don’t know what to say, it’s just tremendous happiness,” said Real Madrid’s Dani Carvajal, minutes after the final whistle of Saturday’s Champions League victory over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley.

Carvajal, the team’s right-back, was the unlikely scorer of their crucial first goal in a 2-0 victory, with Vinicius Jr’s late strike clinching a 15th European Cup or Champions League for Madrid.

Real had been on the back foot for significant parts of the game and Dortmund missed a series of chances to stage a major upset before 5ft 8in Carvajal leapt highest to score a header with 17 minutes to go.

“We knew it would be a tough game — in the first half they were very superior but we got out alive,” Carvajal said on Movistar TV. “We knew our moment would come, and it did, and we have the 15th.”

Carvajal scores the vital opening goal (Photo: INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

The 32 year old knows better than most about Madrid’s history in this competition, and the club’s unique knack of rolling with the punches before delivering the knock-out blow themselves.

Given all the magic and mythology of Madrid in the Champions League, some will say that Carvajal’s moment against Dortmund was destined to come. Soon after joining Madrid’s youth system, he was selected to join the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano in laying the first stone at the club’s then new Valdebebas training facility.

Two decades later, Carvajal was asked what it meant to overtake Di Stefano’s tally of five European Cups, and join another 1950s and 60s hero Paco Gento (who died aged 88 in January 2022) on the record with six.


“When I heard the final whistle I was really emotional,“ he told the post-match press conference. ”I arrived here as a little kid. 21 years ago now, and we’re still making history with this team. It seemed impossible to ever equal Gento. It’s something fantastic. I hope some more come, but now we are there with him.“

Carvajal also shares six with his current teammates Nacho Fernandez and Luka Modric — but his journey to such a coveted place in the club’s history books has been less than straightforward.

A life-long Madrid fan, Carvajal was born in Leganes just to the south of the Spanish capital. He entered the club’s youth system as a 10 year old, soon after Madrid’s ninth Champions League win in 2002, crowned by Zinedine Zidane’s spectacular winner against Bayer Leverkusen.

Never the biggest on any of his teams, the young Carvajal had a mix of technical quality and tenacity which coaches and team-mates loved. While still a teenager, he was part of a star-studded Castilla youth side who gained promotion to Spain’s second division. But while more obviously talented team-mates like Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez were called to play for the first team under coach Jose Mourinho, Carvajal was instead sold to Leverkusen for €5 million in July 2012, without having made a senior La Liga appearance.

Not everyone at the club agreed with that call, as former Castilla winger Juanfran Moreno told The Athletic.

“I played ahead of Carvajal (on the right wing) and knew I had an aeroplane behind me — I knew he was going to make history with Real Madrid,” Juanfran said. “Mourinho killed me for saying in public that I didn’t know why he went to Bayer. I knew he was ready for the first team from his first day at Castilla. It was so clear.”

Carvajal’s quality was also clear as he settled quickly in Leverkusen and was named in the Bundesliga’s best XI for 2012-13. After Madrid activated a €6.5 million buy-back clause the following summer, he quickly won a first team spot under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, and played all 120 minutes as Madrid ended their long wait for a ‘Decima’ 10th Champions League the following June.

Since then Carvajal has been first choice right-back for every Madrid coach. He is the only player to have been in the starting XI in each of the six Champions League final victories of the past 11 years. Three under Zidane’s stewardship from 2016 to 2018, and three more under Ancelotti in 2014, 2022 and now 2024.

Carvajal’s determination and will to win means that he, along with fellow former Castilla players Nacho and Lucas Vazquez, and veteran galacticos Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, have formed the dressing-room’s leadership group this season. This group knows what it takes to have success at Madrid, and are also not shy to call out team-mates who are not putting in the required effort.

“Nacho and Carvajal’s attitude and professionalism in the day to day is an example for their teammates,” another former Castilla teammate Jorge Casado told The Athletic. “You can see their influence, their contagious motivation to keep improving, keep winning trophies.”

During the first half against Dortmund on Saturday, Carvajal was one of the Madrid players who was not close to their best. A lack of communication with defensive partner Antonio Rudiger allowed Karim Adeyemi in for the underdogs’ first big chance of the night, although the right-back did get back on that occasion to make a vital block.

There was nothing at all Carvajal could do against Adeyemi’s pace closer to half time, as Dortmund’s left winger easily out-paced him and got in a shot which Courtois did well to save.

However things changed after half-time, and Carvajal was among the Madrid players to come out determined they were not going to lose. Soon after the break he met a Kroos corner with a flashing header, but the ball flew too high. Near the hour mark he arrived unmarked at the back post, but could not get enough power in his shot.

The 32 year old was not to be denied though — rising superbly to power another Kroos corner to the net in the key moment of the final.

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Carvajal and Dortmund are not to be denied (Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“This year I always go up for corners,” Carvajal said on Movistar TV on Saturday night, with a grin. “Determination has been key for me, for my career. I warned them with one which went too high, and the second one I had to score.”

Carvajal was a surprise goalscorer — given he had only found the net in one of his previous 88 Champions League games. However something has changed this season. He went into Saturday’s final having scored five goals and given five assists, besides having completed his defensive duties as a steady presence in an otherwise injury hit defence — with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and centre-backs Eder Militao and David Alaba missing most of the campaign.

Most of those interventions in attack had also come at key moments — and were generally more down to his character and determination than any technical brilliance. They include a 99th minute close-range strike to cap a comeback from 0-2 down to beat Almeria 3-2 in the league at the Bernabeu in January, and hammering home a loose ball in the 85th minute to equalise in the Spanish Supercopa semi-final. Madrid won both those trophies.

Saturday’s man of the match performance might mean even more to Carvajal, given that some of his previous Champions League wins have been bittersweet for him personally. He left the pitch injured during both the 2016 victory over Atletico Madrid in Milan and the 2018 success against Liverpool in Kiev.

Those injuries meant he missed out on both the 2016 European Championships and the 2018 World Cup for Spain. But he will be part of this summer’s European Championships as a key member of the XI and a very influential dressing room voice.

(Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

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