Dani Carvajal discusses Benzema, Vinicius, the Bernabéu, Hazard, Spain and pronouncing Tchouaméni
Dani Carvajal has been promoted to fourth captain at Real Madrid and is fresh from winning a fifth Champions League in his ninth season at the Bernabéu.
Dani Carvajal has just enjoyed one of his most successful seasons to date at Real Madrid, winning a fifth Champions League and the Liga title. The Spain right back sat down with AS to discuss Madrid’s recruitment policy, Karim Benzema and the Ballon d’Or, Vinicius, Carlo Ancelotti and his imminent wedding.
This is your last interview as an unmarried man. Are you nervous about everything being in place or have you managed to switch off with your wedding a couple of days away?
I don’t tend to get nervous, but the butterflies in the stomach are there that everything goes well and everybody is happy. It’s more preoccupation than nerves. I don’t know if there’s going to be a replica of the Champions League trophy at the wedding. My fiancée wanted one, and one of the Liga trophy, but I told her people would be more interested in taking pictures with those than of the wedding [laughs].
Your son, Martín, is 18 months old and he’s already got a Champions League… are the Real Madrid squad aware of how privileged this generation is?
We talk about it a lot among ourselves, about what we’re achieving, to the extent that in the end it becomes normalized. But when I talk to friends and family, I think in a few years what we are doing will much more valued. It’s not easy. Since the new format was introduced, no team had ever won two consecutive Champions Leagues and we won three. I came back in the Lisbon year and I’ve been here for all five. It’s something amazing and I always say that with time it will gain more value. It’s an honour and a privilege to have been here and helped the club to make history in one of the most golden eras and, for me, it’s the best thing that could have happened to me.
If I say 12 May, 2004, what do you think of?
Yes, of course, when we laid the first stone at Valdebebas (Madrid’s training complex).
You were with Di Stéfano that day, and you had very blond hair…
Yes [laughs]. I was born very blond but now I’m browner. My son is blond as well.
If someone had told you 18 years ago you’d have won five Champions League and started in the final of each one…
I think that’s a stat that only Karim and Luka share with me. I’m very proud to have helped the team win five on the pitch, in the starting XI. It says a little about how difficult it is to be at this club and to keep yourself in the starting line-up for so many years. Marcelo, Iker [Casillas] Sergio [Ramos], Raúl… players that have been here for many years as starters, with the demands of this shirt, it’s something that has merit.
Can you tell me how you managed to win this Champions League, with everything that happened?
We started well in the group stage. Things got a bit complicated with the Sheriff defeat but we got through the rest well an finished top. We hoped for a more favourable draw than the one we got, which was PSG. That tie conditioned everything. We didn’t play well in Paris. We hardly had a shot on goal. The team didn’t react and the best thing about that game was probably the result, only losing 1-0. It was the same in the return leg, we were losing 2-0 on aggregate and then, well, the magic of this side, the pressure of Karim to force a mistake from Donnarumma… We all saw the window open, to go for it. We realized, even the younger lads who hadn’t experienced these Champions League nights, what the Bernabéu is capable of doing. From there, it seemed like we enjoyed suffering and staging comebacks. And that’s what happened. Against Chelsea we played well home and away, they had nothing to lose. Those are the most difficult games to play, against a side who is on the front foot and you don’t want to give an inch. We didn’t go about it in the best way. And against City, well you can imagine. The magic. In two minutes we forced extra time and then we knew we were going through for sure.
You provided the assist for Rodrygo to make it 2-1. Without that cross, maybe there wouldn’t have been a 14th European Cup.
At the end of the day we have all done our bit. Those who played more, and those who didn’t play as much, have all been key to the group. Everyone who came on played a part. You could see it from the bench. Against Chelsea I ended up playing in central defence. It was pretty makeshift. David [Alaba], Lucas [Vázquez], Marcelo and me. Even the midfield three, Casemiro, Luka and Toni [Kroos] weren’t there. That says a lot about the deep and talented squad that we have.
You also filled in as a central defender against City. Was that something you’d done before in your career or was it pure necessity?
I think that after so may years of experience and so many games at this level gives you a level of concentration and positional sense that is so high that you have the basic concepts. Will is power, as the saying goes. If it all goes well and everyone does their part, it pays off.
Along with the final in Cardiff, the game in Paris was one of your best for Madrid. You managed to keep Luis Díaz out of the game, after he’d had a great tournament.
I went into the tail end of the season in good shape and I wanted to make those four finals and four titles count against him, as he was in his first final. It’s not that easy. I wanted to stick to him like glue, I know the danger he can cause and I think I got the better of him for most of the game. That was one of the keys. In the defensive duels we were far superior in various aspects of the game. And then there was Thibaut’s performance, he saved us several times.
How did you manage to win your last eight finals?
I think it has more to do with what the opposition feels than what we feel. We always go for everything. We know that, even if we are playing very badly and it’s not our day, we will have our chances and if we keep hammering away, we’ll get the reward. The opposition influences themselves; they’re thinking they have Madrid in front of them, Madrid don’t lose in finals, Madrid know how to manage finals… the final in Cardiff was amazing, we were better than Juventus in every way, especially in the second half. And in Paris, we scored the goal and we played a very practical game. We knew what we had to do at every moment, that they would leave spaces open and that’s the key: managing the passages in the game correctly to win the trophy.
Do you find it strange that there are fans already buying tickets for the final in Istanbul next year?
[Laughs] I encourage them. We’ll try to get to the final, of course. It would be amazing. But step by step. There’s a lot of work to do, other sides are reinforcing a lot. It makes me laugh when people tell me: ‘I’ve been to every final and we’ve won them all.’ And of course I thinkm we haven’t lost a final since… [laughs]. It’s funny.
Last season you were only able to pay 15 games because of injuries. What changed?
It was thanks to the nutritionist, who found out that gluten isn’t any good for me. It caused inflammations and it makes competitive action riskier. I also take a specific supplement, depending on the month. Rest also helps. I work with the physio. I do mental work as well, in games, like the final or the return leg against City, assuming we would go to extra time against Chelsea… my level of excitation was too high in previous years and that makes the muscles need more oxygen, more blood, and that weakens you in the end. All in all, I can say that I am happy with my performance and I am liberated in that sense. I get the occasional knock, but I I can say that I have now got out of that negative cycle.
Do you miss milk and red meat or can you live without them?
I can eat red meat [laughs], maybe once or twice a week. Chicken, fish… I like to eat well. I like everything and that makes things easier.
Nobody talks about Madrid signing right backs, with Carvajal there and Odriozola coming back. It’s not easy to make a position your own at Real Madrid.
It’s never easy, above all when your performance levels are not up to scratch. The club wants to reinforce the squad and it makes sense they want to sign younger players. Times passes and the club is doing a great job. With Vinicius, Rodrygo, Camavinga, Asensio in his day… everyone. They are also signing people with experience like Rüdiger and David, who were signed on free transfers. Or like Tchouaméni.
How did you pronounce it? It sounds like the T is silent.
It’s not easy, no… we’ll try and find him a name that’s a bit easier [laughs].
Ancelotti has played a big part in your career. You came back from a year at Leverkusen, you hadn’t yet made your debut for Madrid and he made you the starter and when he came back, he kept you there. How is Ancelotti as a manager?
In terms of the squad, he is a leader, a reference point for everyone; whenever he speaks, everyone strains all five senses to listen to him and to understand him. He managed to achieve harmony with those who play more, those who play less, he tried to understand everyone. He was a player and he understands that not playing is not an ideal situation. He is a fantastic coach, he knows how to set up for the games, but what really stands out is the way he treats his players.
What did he say to you after the Clásico defeat, which was a key moment in the season? How did he ensure the team didn’t lose confidence?
Barcelona were better than us in that game, they knew how to exploit our weaknesses. It’s always tough to lose at home against your arch-rivals and with a score like that. The international break was very good for us. But the gaffer told us to be calm, that it was only three points. If you go to Celta and lose it’s three points as well, it’s the same. He told us: ‘We worked hard and put in a lot of effort to lose that match.’ And I think that message was key to us winning in Vigo and the league was decided against Sevilla, when we came from behind and then Barcelona lost at home practically the following day, or Monday.
Madrid won the league with a month to spare, won the Champions League, the Spanish Super Cup, it was one of the best seasons for a Spanish side. And yet people still question Madrid’s style…
Do you know what happens? When one team wins and the others don’t, few people understand that the opposition has been better in that sense. In the end in football, the team that takes the most shots, has the most possession, makes the most passes in the opposition half, who entertains the fans most, isn’t the side that wins. The side that wins is the one who scores the most goals and concedes the fewest. In that respect we were better, but not just this season; that we have won five of the last nine Champions Leagues shows that, if you play badly and only win, you don’t win five Champions League titles in nine editions. You have to have something else. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but speaking from the inside, I’d say we have probably one of the best squads in the world, and that the magic, that belief, that strength, or as Guardiola said recently: ‘Madrid are losing 2-0 and nobody burns the ball.” That’s not easy, and not every side can claim to have it.
“If everything was A or B it would be very boring, if every side played the same way”
Madrid have two veterans who are the best in the world in their positions: Luka Modric and Karim Benzema.
They are the best players. The team makes decisions, but we also know how to play, and we know that with a superior team sometimes you have to know how to close the lines and look for spaces in a different way. If everything was A or B it would be very boring, if every side played the same way. That’s the beauty of football, that tactics and the way of going about a game are different, and that’s why I think what we’re doing deserves credit. But if someone wants to console themselves with the fact that winning is all that matters to us, I respect the opinion, but I don’t agree at all.
The Bernabéu played a key part in this season’s successes.
The fans and the stadium were fundamental to us winning the Champions League and LaLiga. Lots of teams can score against you in the 75th minute, you need two goals to go through, and everybody knew it could happen. That gives us wings, it gives us a lot of energy to come back, and it paid off, thanks to them.
You’re the fourth captain now, behind Benzema, Nacho and Modric. That must be satisfying.
Yes, the truth is it is. It makes me very happy. I’m very proud to belong to the group of four captains. It’s a boost to fight even harder for your teammates and I’m very proud that so much time has passed and that I’m still an important part of the team. At least that’s what the club tells me.
“To a large extent it was Karim who led us to these successes”
Benzema is the captain now and few people doubt he should win the Ballon d’Or.
No, any other candidate is a long way off him. Not just because of what he has helped us achieve, in which he played an incredibly important part. To a large extent it was Karim who led us to these successes. The goals he scored, the assists he provided… anyone who has seen Karim play is in no doubt that the Ballon d’Or is his.
The younger players are coming through. Camavinga, Rodrygo, Vinicius… are you surprised by the level Vinicius has reached?
Those of us who train with him know the potential he has and this year he has exploded. Everybody has seen it. As Karim said, he can be among the five best players in the world without doubt, but I want to point out all the hard work he has put in. He was very young when he arrived here and he’s taken a lot of stick. There were even memes about his lack of success in front of goal, people are very critical. It’s not easy to wear this shirt when you’re so young. It’s happened to lots of players, having that fear of failure and not being yourself as a result. He has pushed on; he’s put that behind him and he’s shown himself able to cope with everything. He has all my respect for that, because it is not easy. He’s earned a good contract extension and I hope he’s here for a long time.
Another player who has had a nightmare with injuries, and you know how hard that is, is Eden Hazard, and it was striking to see everyone gathered around him in Cibeles. Do you think this season we’ll finally see the Hazard who was among the world’s five best at Chelsea?
I think so, yes, when he overcomes the problems, which are also mental. When he gets his rhythm back, game after game, he will be an amazing player as he has demonstrated year after year. And the huddle we did with him speaks about what a great person he is. He’s been through a nightmare, but he always arrived at Valdebebas, put his work in and never complained. Not everyone can do that.
Players like Tchouaméni and Rüdiger had big offers from other clubs. And the same happened with Alaba and Camavinga. Players come to Madrid independently of the financial side of things. Mbappé decided to stay at PSG. Did that give you an extra motivation for the Champions League final?
Players like Antonio and Camavinga decided to come to Madrid because they know what it means to be at this club, everything around this club is huge. They will get to experience it soon. David already has. As for the Mbappé issue, it seemed like it was practically signed and sealed. His contract was expiring but, in the end, he decided to stay. It was his decision, he will have spoken to his people, weighed up the pros and cons, and everybody’s decisions have to be respected. He stayed in Paris to try and win the Champions League with them. Sometimes these opportunities only come around once. I don’t want to close the door to him, not at all, but you never know what might happen in the future. A lot of players, if Madrid come knocking, they don’t think twice. He made his decision. He is in his home city and he was placed under a lot of pressure. He is the flag bearer, the idol, the star and he wants to make history with his club. I think that’s fair. But Madrid will always be there, it always has been and always will be. The club is above everyone and everything.
Finally, you are a mainstay of Luis Enrique’s Spain squad. Do you think we can dream of another triumph like those of the golden years?
We are very, very excited. The gaffer has managed to create a core, a group of 50 players, and we want people to get hooked again and to believe again. At the Euros we got to the semi-finals and were knocked out on penalties. It will be a beautiful World Cup, an atypical one. At Christmas time, in winter, and I would put Spain among the five or six candidates to win it.