How Beautiful is Football?

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I know what you’re thinking. 

I know what you wanna know.

It’s the question I get all the time.

How did I go from Barcelona to Zagreb and then on to Leipzig?

What kind of Catalan kid, born just 25 kilometres from Camp Nou, leaves La Masia for Croatia anyway?

Yeah, I know. We’ll get to that. But first, my story starts in Terrassa, and it starts with a ball.

All my earliest memories are of me with a ball. Everywhere. Glued to it. I just wanted to play all the time. I even slept with a ball! My very first memory is of me and my older brother, Carlos, playing in these mini goals my parents put up on our terrace. I was like two years old and Carlos would put me in position between the posts and just shoot at me! Haha! 

Between him and my dad, it was impossible not to be football mad in my house. I should explain that my dad, Miguel, ran a cosmetics shop but his other job — let’s say his real passion — was as a football manager.

We lived and breathed the beautiful game. Nothing mattered to me like playing. Having that ball glued to me. I know, every footballer says this, right? But I really don’t think you understand.

I’ll give you one example of just how inseparable the ball and I were.

One time, before I even joined La Masia, I accompanied my father while he was managing a game at Castelldefels. I was eight years old.

I was playing happily by myself with a ball, when someone — I think it was a friend of my dad’s — came over and told me, “Hey, Dani, come here! You’re not going to believe this. You’re going to have your picture taken with Lionel Messi!”

Apparently, Messi had a friend playing in the Castelldefels game and had come down to see him.

Wow, Messi, right? In Castelldefels? What kid wouldn’t want their picture with him?

Well, me

I was like, “No, thanks. I’m good. I want to keep playing! It’s just a picture, right?”

But, against my will, they stuck me next to Messi and took the picture. I didn’t even say anything to him. I just waited for the click and then I went back to my ball, like I was doing him a favour. 

Dani Olmo | Lionel Messi | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of Dani Olmo

In the end, I have to say I’m glad they forced me, because I’ve still got that picture framed at home. At the time though, I wasn’t happy to have my valuable playing time interrupted — even by an icon.

But I guess it illustrates just how much I loved the ball.

Not even Messi was a distraction. Sorry, Leo :)

When I joined La Masia not long after that chance meeting with Messi, I actually cried. 

In my defence, I was nine years old and I wanted to stay with my friends at Espanyol. But my dad had made the decision and I have to say, in the end, he knew what was best for me.

I have many incredible memories from La Masia and the club will always have a special place in my heart. It was a privilege to play there. It’s a reference for the rest of the football world and any kid would give up anything to play there, where so many greats have gone before and learned their craft.

It’s a special place. It’s a place of high standards. Come on, it’s Barcelona!

There was pressure, though. Real pressure. There was always someone watching. Every day, I was aware that any day could be my last there, you know?

Dani Olmo | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of Dani Olmo

I remember very clearly the end of my first year, when I was 10, and our team had just won the final of a youth tournament against Atlético de Madrid in Andorra. Our coach sat all of us down after the game and started asking everyone, one by one, why we thought we deserved to be at La Masia next year. 

I was 10. I was so nervous. I had no idea what to say. I just wanted to play!

I remember just listening as the coach went round in the circle, until my turn. I was sweating. I had no idea how this could affect my life.

When he finally got to me and asked me, “So, Dani, why do you think you should continue here next season?”

...

I just blurted out something like, “Well Coach, it’s been a good season, and I think I improved throughout the year…?”

He looked at me for a second and then was like, “Yes, I agree. Very good, Dani.” And then he moved on. 

Just like that.

Soon after, we all had confirmation that we would be staying on for the next year. I was so delighted, especially after our tournament victory. It was like winning the double!

At Barcelona, I played in some amazing tournaments, I met some incredible people and I learned so much. I even once got to play a match at Camp Nou. On that pitch. The holy land. The dream.

So, why did I leave this incredible place after seven years?

Well, I needed a project. 

And of course, because it’s me, I needed to play. I needed the ball.

At first, Barcelona didn’t believe me that I was going.

Nobody leaves Barcelona for Croatia. Nobody. It’s just not done.

But I did.

As soon as my father told me about the offer, I was like, “I’m going.”

Simple as that.

Dani Olmo | The Players' Tribune
Darko Bandic/AP Photo

I wasn’t scared like when I left Espanyol for Barça. I didn’t cry. I had already been living away from home at La Masia. I needed to get outside my comfort zone and this just felt like the natural next step for me, even at 16 years old.

My father told me, “This team, Dinamo Zagreb, they want to make you their project. They want to bet everything on you.”

That’s all I needed to hear. I didn’t care where it was or that it was outside the Big Five leagues. I knew nothing about Croatia, but I knew at Barça I was in danger of being lost in the system, becoming just another player, with no clear pathway to the first team. 

At Barcelona, I was in the same age group as Carles Aleñá, Marc Cucurella, Carles Pérez. Looking back, now only Carles Aleñá is still with Barça today and he is out on loan. The rest of my group are all at other clubs, or in Barça B. It’s been very difficult to break into the first team.

Dinamo Zagreb’s president, Mirko Barišić, told me that they would develop me, put me in the first team, give me experience in Europe’s top competitions and, on top of that: make me the most expensive sale in the club’s history.

Dinamo are famous for bringing through youth talent and selling on for profit to Europe’s top clubs. Up until that point, their biggest sale had been Luka Modrić to Tottenham for £16m back in 2008. As a teenager, to hear someone put that much faith in you, to tell you that eventually you could be more valuable than Modrić … Well, wow

I was beaming. I was hooked.

It did not take me long to get hooked on Croatia as a country, too.

It’s an amazing, beautiful place and I still consider it my second home. During the holidays, when I have a break, I have a choice: I can go to Spain, where my family is, or I can go to Zagreb … where my other family is!

Croatia is an amazing country but it is still a young country, you know? 

There are still signs of the conflict that happened not that long ago, and many people are still recovering from war. This was less obvious in some of the bigger cities like Zagreb, but when Dinamo would go to play in the smaller border towns, the aftermath of war was still clear.

How can I explain…? It’s like ... you breathe a different air in those places. 

In some towns, you can still see bullet holes in the walls and kids playing football on pitches in front of bomb-damaged buildings. Those images stuck in my mind. It shocked me.

It’s tough for even me to talk about, as an outsider. You have to see it. You have to live it.

It was not just a war that happened 30 years ago, but an ethnic conflict. Something that happened in living memory and tore communities apart.

People who used to live side by side were killing each other.

It’s a tough thing to deal with. As a result, some people have remained very closed on the subject. Some still haven’t fully gotten over what happened. Some haven’t moved on.

It’s the reality of war, I guess.

I learned more about the history of Croatia through football.

As I learned the language, I memorised the songs the fans would sing, and I started to understand the meaning behind the words. They spoke of pain and suffering, and of a longing for unity at times when there was none. 

Those lyrics still leave me with goosebumps, man.

As well as giving me an insight into a part of the world and a culture I didn’t know anything about, Croatia also gave me some of my best moments as a footballer.

I won the Croatian league title, I won the Cup, I played in some incredible games, and it’s where I earned my first call-up to the Spain national team.

For that last one, I remember our coach giving me the news at the end of a training session. 

I couldn’t believe it. I just kept saying, “It can’t be…. It can’t be!” while the rest of the Dinamo guys gave me a pasillo — you know, when they make you go through a guard of honour, except instead of clapping nicely, they beat you!

Dinamo also delivered on their crazy promise to make me their most expensive sale of all time, when I joined RB Leipzig.

From there, I started the next chapter of my project at RB Leipzig, where I’ve already experienced so many amazing things and been able to work with some of the best in the world, not least Julian Nagelsmann.

The boss contacted me personally, before my transfer in January 2020. And I have to say he is the one who convinced me to come to Germany. He is an intense, sometimes peculiar guy, haha! But a very intelligent, passionate person, and a great communicator too. 

To be honest, I’m not even sure what the best adjective would be to describe him…. He is Nagelsmann. Pure intensity, pure emotion. It’s like … whatever comes to him, he lets it out. And the most important thing is that you know what he wants.

When he called, he told me how much he was counting on me and how he could help me grow and reach the next level in my career. No other club did that. It reminded me of Dinamo’s faith five years before, and I knew this was the right project.

So far, I haven’t been wrong!

Dani Olmo | The Players' Tribune
Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images

But, as amazing as my football journey has been so far, I have to say that perhaps nothing stands out like one match from my time in Croatia. 

I can’t not tell you about it….

Dinamo Zagreb vs. Hajduk Split.

The Eternal Derby.

That game, man. It’s like the Clasico, but even more intense!

How can I explain this…? In Croatia, Dinamo and Hajduk are like Mum and Dad. It’s massive. Everyone picks a side. No one is neutral.

Even away from the pitch, whenever I would go down south to Split, I would get stared at. Like I shouldn’t be there. Like I was behind enemy lines or something.

Sometimes people would say things to me on the street — not pleasant things! Let's say they didn’t want to take a picture with me, eh? But I’m fortunate that I didn’t encounter any real “ultras” when I visited. Maybe it also didn’t help their mood that we never lost to Hajduk when I was there. Hahaha ;)

The one derby that stands out the most for me was a league game, at home at Maksimir Stadium in August 2017, when I was still just 19 years old. I was just coming back from injury and was in and out of the team. 

We actually played a European game midweek and the manager had given me a chance to get back in form, but I went and got sent off! It’s still the only red card I’ve ever gotten. I couldn’t believe it. I barely ever even get booked!

Even away from the pitch, whenever I would go down south to Split, I would get stared at. Like I shouldn’t be there.

Dani Olmo

For the derby then, I was back on the bench. But sometime in the second half, with the score at 1–0 to us, the coach decided to sub me on. 

It was my chance. 

I think my life flashed before my eyes stepping out onto the pitch in that atmosphere!

After just a few minutes of coming on, Hajduk scored the equaliser from a corner kick. 

My emotions were all over the place. The coach had trusted me in this huge game — the biggest game there is — and I needed to seize this moment.

I needed the ball.

In the 78th minute, it happened.

The play started out on the right and came inside.

Our Chilean winger Junior Fernández went to give a one-two, but was blocked off by the defender on the edge of the area.

The ball dropped perfectly for me. In space. Twenty-five yards out.

It hit it hard and low. 

The keeper dove, but he was getting nowhere near it in the bottom corner.

It was perfect. It was beautiful.

The stadium exploded.

I exploded.

I just kept repeating: ”Qué hermoso es el futbol…. Qué hermoso es el futbol!” as my teammates crowded around me and celebrated. 

¡Qué hermoso es el futbol. Qué hermoso es el futbol!

(How beautiful is football? How beautiful is football?!?!)

I’m not sure how many of them understood, but they got the sentiment! Football is universal after all.

We ended up winning the game 3–1, but that goal changed everything for me. It was a Sliding Doors moment. It validated the choices I had made in my career up until that moment to follow the ball and set me on the path to where I am today with RB Leipzig.

And it is still one of the happiest moments of my life.

Dani Olmo | The Players' Tribune
Luka Stanzl/Pixsell/MB Media/Getty Images

There are so many people I need to thank for my story so far, from my brother, Carlos, and my father, Miguel, to my coaches at La Masia, everyone at Dinamo for believing in me and at RB Leipzig for giving me my next project, where I have already been so fortunate.

But of all the people and places I have to thank, Croatia is right near the top.

It is an amazing country that gave me five incredible years, where the best club in the land made me their project.

I owe so much to Croatia, my second home.

It’s why I wanted to get involved with the Common Goal movement.

If you don’t already know about Common Goal, let me fill you in. I’m now one of the 160 footballers (along with coaches like my boss Julian Nageslmann) to have signed up to the project and pledged 1% of our annual salaries to help football NGOs around the world.

Their work supports youth football programs in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and across Europe.

My donation specifically supports a project run by an organisation in the Balkans called the Cross Cultures Projects Association, which helps the communities still dealing with the after-effects of war.

Most importantly, the CCPA helps children in the region to have a right to a childhood and education, no matter their ethnicity or gender.

In the end, it’s always kids who suffer the most from conflict. I want to help give them the opportunities I had and the dream to just follow the ball, wherever it takes them. 

Just as I did.

As a project, I couldn’t ask for a better one. 

I started this with your question for me. Now I’ll end with my own….

How beautiful is football?

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