A promising career undone by lifestyle choices. Graham Willgoss tells the tale of a good-looking footballer who made quite an impression on Harry Redknapp

Portugal has produced its fair share of gifted footballers who have embraced style over substance. None, however, has done so more openly than Dani da Cruz Carvalho, the twinkle-toed attacking midfielder-cum-striker known simply as “Dani”, who spent nine games at West Ham on loan from Sporting Lisbon in the late winter of 1996.

Dani began his career in the same Sporting side as Luís Figo, making his debut at 17 in the 1994-95 season after starring in that summer’s Under-18 European Championship. He made his senior international debut aged 19 in Portugal’s 1-1 draw with England at Wembley before Harry Redknapp – with a reputation for taking a punt on continental chancers – signed him for West Ham.

Much was made of Dani’s “pretty boy” looks. The first Portuguese to play in the Premier League was already a male model when he joined a Hammers team struggling against relegation and Redknapp famously said on signing him: “My missus fancies him. Even I don’t know whether to play him or fuck him.”

Fortunately for Dani, Redknapp played him. His attacking flair endeared him to the West Ham faithful immediately and he capped a sparkling full debut in a televised game against Spurs with the winning goal in a 1-0 victory. Sky’s post-match formalities followed with a microphone thrust in the face of the Portuguese man of the match and his strike partner, Iain Dowie (“with me is Dani and Dowie”). In surely the most striking juxtaposition of footballing faces ever seen in a televised post-match interview, Sky still felt it necessary to flash up on the screen the name of each player as he spoke – presumably to prevent any confusion.

The pretty boy was also a notorious party boy. His performances ignited West Ham for a short while and he scored just one other goal – in a 4-2 home win over Manchester City – but a fondness for nightclubs and late nights over training meant a fractious relationship with his manager. In his autobiography, Redknapp recalls taking West Ham to Tenerife for a mid-season break to get away from the pressures of the relegation battle. Dani failed to show up for training the morning after the team had been given permission to leave the hotel for the evening: “Come 1.30pm, there was still no sign of him. We were relaxing by the pool… suddenly there’s this tanned figure walking towards us, hair immaculate, sunglasses on, every inch the film star. He couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t give me an explanation. All the lads knew he had picked up a bird, maybe even two or three, but there was no way he was going to tell me.”

In his short time in London, Dani was rumoured by the tabloids to be dating, among others, Louise Nurding (later Redknapp), Kylie Minogue and Princess Tamara Laura Czartoryska Borbón, second cousin to the reigning King of Spain. The Louise rumours, Dani has since claimed, didn’t help his case for a permanent move.

But it was the Portuguese’s insistence on playing up to the footballing cliche of staying out in nightclubs and calling in sick for training that led Redknapp to fire him. But not before he dropped the club’s “little film star” to the reserves, a move Dani insisted was motivated by West Ham looking to reduce his £5 million price tag.

After having his loan contract terminated early, Dani went to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with Portugal, where his performances earned him a move to Ajax. He impressed Johan Cruyff, who had been in the US commentating for Dutch television, enough in one of his first appearances for the club to be given the No 14 shirt. Dani spent four years and made 72 appearances in Amsterdam, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 1997 and winning the Eredivisie in 1998, but he was never a regular starter. He returned to Portugal, where he played briefly under José Mourinho at Benfica in 2000 before ending his playing career helping Atlético Madrid win promotion.

Dani retired from football aged just 27 after an unsuccessful trial with Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in 2004 – the same year his former team-mate Figo would come so close to lifting the European Championship as leader of his country’s “golden generation”. Dani has since said that, had he been more disciplined, he could have gone on to play at Chelsea under Mourinho, who “believed in his ability”.

Since retiring, Dani has pursued a career in television and even presented the Portuguese version of Strictly Come Dancing. Right where Redknapp always thought he belonged – in front of the camera.

From WSC 280 June 2010