“They told me I was crazy,” admitted Miquel Olmo, who played for and later managed various clubs in Spain. “I was a coach in the Spanish second division and they massacred me for it, saying I was ruining my son’s career. Leaving Barcelona was not easy, especially if you were the captain, and he was also playing for the national team. It was the most difficult decision in his life.”
It is now more than five years since his son Daniel - known as Dani – left the famed La Masia to join Dinamo Zagreb. He was not lured by big money or big promises. Barely 16, a top prospect and team captain in his generation, he was closely followed by other elite European clubs – reportedly Manchester United and Manchester City were particularly interested in snatching the youngster away from the Camp Nou — but the Olmo family sought an option they thought would be best for Dani’s development.
His best chance, they felt, was not at Barcelona, where he would find it difficult to break through into the first team despite his exceptional talents. But choosing Croatia, even if it was a top club there, well-known for its academy that had produced such as Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, came as a shock to everyone. In Zagreb, however, where developing players and selling them is the core business, he was to be made into a club ‘project’.
Olmo had just signed a youth contract with Dinamo when he received a message from his Barcelona coach. “Leave out the nonsense, Dani,” he told him. “The Monday practice starts at 10.”
Andy Bara is a Croatian agent who came up with the idea of bringing Olmo to Zagreb after meeting his father at one of Barcelona’s youth camps where he was coaching. He says: “Barcelona refused to accept that Dani had left them, let alone joined Dinamo. They constantly sent him messages saying ‘Where have you gone?’ and ‘What have you done?’”
At first the idea must have sounded crazy indeed but in retrospect it was precisely because Olmo Senior was not a complete outsider to player development at Barcelona that his son and he could be convinced into making such a move. They had so little faith in the club that they would rather venture into the unknown, making a fresh start in a completely foreign and unglamorous football culture, than stay where Dani had already established himself as one of the leading talents.
That, of course, poses some uneasy questions about the future of player development at elite European clubs – questions which the Premier League clubs are certainly familiar with, especially after Jadon Sancho’s successful move to Borussia Dortmund.
Dani Olmo’s path will now serve as an example of what is possible because he has really made it big with Dinamo. Last season was definitely his breakthrough as he was voted the best player in the Prva HNL by coaches and captains, had a great season in the Europa League, where the club reached the knockout stages, and finished it with winning the Under-21 European Championship with Spain.
He arrived as a substitute but ended up scoring in the final and being selected in the team of the tournament. Still 21, he has continued to lead the young La Roja in this season’s qualifiers, scoring three goals in two games.
So what kind of player is Olmo? A quick dribbler with superb vision of the game and high resistance to pressing, both creative and tough in challenges. A model professional, he can play on both wings but is best fielded centrally behind the striker, where he finds rational and intelligent solutions either to set up goals for his teammates or to score himself.
In Dinamo’s 4-0 Champions League win over Atalanta he did not score or assist for any goals but was still ridiculously good – according to InStat, he won 24 challenges, including 12 successful dribbles (out of 14 attempts) and was the ever-present, central figure to all of his team’s attacks. And that was his Champions League debut.
He has obviously become too good for Dinamo and everyone expected him to join one of the bigger clubs but Dinamo asked for too much money – reportedly €40m, which is unheard of for a player in the Croatian League. If he continues to play like this, though, the club just might get their way.
“We won’t let them beat us easily,” Olmo says about the game against Manchester City on Tuesday. “We’ll play to win.”
They might not win, although Dinamo should by no means be underestimated this season and the Atalanta match proved that. But Olmo will still use the opportunity to show himself on the big stage, at the home of a club where he could have ended up five years ago if the family had gone for money rather than his best chance of development. Now he is pretty much set to make the leap back to the elite anyway.
“Everything changed,” says Miquel Olmo. “Today they say we were courageous and made the best decision.”
The Guardian Sport