It didn’t taken long for Dani Ceballos to win over Arsenal supporters. An hour into his home debut he robbed Burnley’s Johann Gudmundsson and played in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the winner. The Emirates sensed this could be the start of something special.
Wind back his career clock about seven years to the day he was discovered by Spanish club Betis and the story of instant impact is very similar.
Betis scout Aurelio Santos had turned up to a regional under-16s game to watch two opposing full-backs, when a midfield tearaway who he knew nothing about stole the show.
Dani Ceballos has already impressed Arsenal fans since joining on loan from Real Madrid
The midfielder is an all-action player and can create something out of nothing
Just 15 minutes into the game he called his assistant to see if the name ‘Ceballos’ figured in the club’s huge database but there was no trace.
‘That day he did absolutely everything,’ Santos told Sportsmail. ‘He won a penalty, he took the penalty, and when it was saved he ran to pick the ball up before sprinting across to take the subsequent corner. He was hyperactive. We knew we had to have him.’
Santos asked Ceballos’ team, Utrera, if he could come for a trial. The next battle was to make sure Real Madrid and Barcelona didn’t steal him away.
‘We weren’t able to play the game at our own training ground and we were picking players for the following season so there was lots of talent on display. Real Madrid and Barcelona were watching.
‘We took Dani off before the break. The decision was made. We didn’t need to see any more.
‘I spoke to him after the match and he was with one of his team-mates. He said: “I’ll get going because you obviously don’t want me”.
Ceballos stood out for the Real Betis scouts and he’s never been short of self confidence
‘He thought because we’d taken him off we weren’t interested. I had to tell him: “No, we want you. We just didn’t want anyone else to see you!”’
Ceballos wasn’t short of self confidence as a teenager. He had a famous sports brand’s trademark swoosh shaved into the side of his head and was nicknamed ‘Dani Nike’ because of it.
In one of his first contract negotiations he asked for the number 10 shirt, as worn by his idol Ronaldinho, to be part of his new deal.
But Santos’ story highlights some self doubt too. He’d been released by Sevilla as a 13-year-old after five years at the club. He had sensed a second chance had also been lost in that trial match.
Ceballos did sign for Betis, earning around 60 euros a month at first just to cover travelling expenses. Within a year he was making his first team debut.
If not for Santos spotting him, life might have not taken him much further than Utrera, the Andalusian heartland municipality famous for Flamenco, the Spanish fighting bull ‘Toro Bravo’ and another former Arsenal player Jose Antonio Reyes.
But he was in the big time now. His Betis supporting parents who owned a ‘churros’ stand from where they sold the traditional sugary, doughy, deep-fried snack were the proudest in Andalusia.
Ceballos’ former managers talk about him being a ‘special’ kid from a humble background and one who without academy football during those formative years still had the soul of a street player.
The electric blonde hair and combative style was something Betis fans came to appreciate
The word ‘anarchic’ crops up a lot when speaking to his former coaches.
Pepe Mel built his second division promotion winning Betis team around the 18-year-old Ceballos in the 2014-15 season.
Gus Poyet would manage him in the first division in the 2016-17 campaign but with less success.
Mel recalls: ‘You had to be on top of him. He had to feel important. It was hard for him to learn tactically at first because of that street football spirit. He’s an intuitive player.’
When Poyet took over it seemed he would be an important part of the team. He tweaked his system to get him into the area more and he was scoring goals.
‘But you have to make him the protagonist,’ he says. ‘When Dani has the responsibility of having the ball, of carrying the weight of the team, of getting close to the area and creating chances, then you get the best from him.’
Different managers realised that Ceballos needs a degree of freedom in a system to flourish
With other star turns in the side that wasn’t possible and Poyet ended up leaving Ceballos out.
When Victor Sanchez del Amo replaced Poyet the team struggled but Ceballos flourished. He ended up winning the Under-21 Euros that summer with Spain and had both Real Madrid and Barcelona chasing him.
He had matured on the pitch and off it, although some unpleasant tweets posted when he was just 16 in 2012 came back to haunt him.
In one he had criticised Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao supporters jeering the Spanish national anthem at the Copa del Rey final saying a ‘bomb should fall on the Camp Nou’.
At Betis work had been done to keep him out of trouble off the pitch. Manolo Nieto was the players’ press officer and part of his job in the early days was to teach him that social media was not the place to air every personal opinion or private joke that might enter his head.
They remained in close contact after Ceballos left the club.
At Real Madrid, Ceballos impressed when given the chance but fell out of favour
He has been outstanding for Spain at age group level and helped win the Euro U21 crown
Speaking to Nieto you sense that he would have preferred to see Ceballos go to Barcelona when he left Betis.
But instead he moved to Madrid where Zinedine Zidane had little desire to make room in his team for a rookie maverick.
‘With Zidane it’s the sacred cows that count, just look at the team now,’ Nieto says.
Ceballos fell out with Zidane over limited game time despite good performances when picked, and when Zidane returned to the club last March, it was clear Ceballos would have to leave.
Florentino Perez, the club’s president, insisted on a loan deal, which meant Sunday’s opponents Tottenham, who only wanted to buy him outright, lost him to Arsenal.
The question now is how will fare in the Premier League under Unai Emery.
His former coaches, his close pal Nieto, and the scout who discovered him are all positive.
‘Unai is a good coach for him,’ says Mel. ‘There is a logic in the anarchy you get from Dani,’ addes Nieto. ‘Emery understands that logic. Football these days is planned to the last millimeter. Someone has to do something improvised. Dani gives you that.’
Poyet agrees: ‘I think he gives Arsenal something they didn’t have before,’ he says. ‘He’ll link up with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang and [Alexandre] Lacazette and technically he is very good.
‘The best I have seen him play has been for Spain Under-21s when you have nine players who are very positional and he goes where he wants to.’
The Spaniard’s girlfriend Maria Sanchez del Moral (right) will help him learn English
Off the pitch Nieto is sure that he is ready for London. Reyes famously turned his home in Cockfosters into a mini-Seville and never settled in England.
As Nieto points out, Ceballos has arrived older and more experienced.
‘His girlfriend [María Sánchez del Moral, a qualified primary school teacher] will try to help him learn the language. He is an open person, he will give it everything,’ he says.
Arsenal buying him outright might depend on performances in matches like today’s – Emery will want some of that Ceballos anarchy but not too much.
Santos, the man who first spotted him prefers to call it ‘bendito desorden’ (blessed disorder). ‘It’s still football’s most sought-after ingredient,’ he says.