Cory Varney: Zidane, the quest for a better life and following Danel’s dream
Danel Sinani is one of the more intriguing pieces of summer transfer business from Norwich City. Fan and writer, Cory Varney, digs a bit deeper to uncover a fascinating back story behind the 23-year-old’s family journey from a war-torn part of Europe to Norfolk.
Between training, games and making history with F91 Dudelange – more on that later – Danel Sinani had been studying economics at the University of Luxembourg. “My dream has always been to become a professional one day,” he told magazine, Revue, on his footballing dreams, though added, “Not everyone makes the leap.”
Sinani, however, who ranks Zinedine Zidane as an idol and could see himself becoming a coach one day, now has.
Ordinarily, the signing of someone with a record of 24 goals in 30 games would bring plenty of fanfare, yet Sinani’s arrival got somewhat lost in the shuffle when confirmed in April, with toilet roll panic buying in full swing and the country getting to grips with the “new normal” of the coronavirus lockdown.
A bruising relegation later followed, with Stuart Webber, inset, adding 11 new faces to the squad in a busy summer at Carrow Road – with Sinani technically the first, and comfortably the most obscure of them. Bar glimpses – that assist for Hugill, for example – in a very swift pre-season, along with year old YouTube montages, there’s not been all that much for Norwich fans to go off when it comes to Danel Sinani, so what is his story?
Born in Belgrade in 1997, Sinani and his family left for Luxembourg, where they had cousins, after the outbreak of the war in Kosovo.
The family were originally from the village of Dragash in Kosovo and Sinani’s parents – as he told Revue – were keen to offer him and brother, Dejvid, “stability and security in a country that is not at war”.
After a few weeks in a refugee home in Bourscheid, they made Differdange their new home, where Sinani began his footballing life with FC Differdange 03. It was a later move to the capital, however, to Racing FC Union Luxembourg, where he began to make his mark.
Sinani stepped into the first-team as a 17-year-old in 2014, scoring three goals in 15 games, as Racing FC returned to Luxembourg’s National Division – the BGL Ligue – at the first time of asking following relegation. Sinani’s brother, Dejvid, also a footballer, admitted to the Luxemburger Wort that it was here he started to realise how much potential his brother had.
For Sinani, he had “a lot of good coaches who put their trust in me” and his confidence started to grow. He would repay that trust the following season, scoring four goals with eight assists in 2015-16, before having his best goalscoring season yet in 2016-17 with eight.
His progress had not gone unnoticed. A move to FC Nürnberg’s second team was on the table that summer, though Sinani felt he would be better served developing himself further in Luxembourg. He joined 12-time champions F91 Dudelange, believing it would be easier to make the leap into the professional game here.
In Dino Toppmöller’s side, he would also now have a chance to play European football – though no club from Luxembourg had reached the group stage of a European competition.
Not yet anyway.
Sinani’s international debut followed in September, with a 0-0 away draw against soon to be crowned world champions France after time spent in the younger age groups, where one of his coaches was Manuel Cardoni.
Cardoni, someone Sinani has said he “owes a lot” and has been a long-time advocate of him moving abroad, offered a glowing character reference to the Luxemburger Wort, praising Sinani’s dedication, manners and upbringing, while joking he still “owed him a pizza” after falling short of a 10-goal target he’d set him while playing at Racing.
During his time progressing through the age groups, Sinani also encountered another mentor, future Luxembourg head coach, Luz Holtz.
Holtz, speaking exclusively to the Pinkun this summer, said, “When Danel was 15, I coached him in our under-15 team. He always had that great technique, that quality when he had the ball. But as a younger player he was missing the athletic power. Those qualities came a little later.”
Sinani will likely need time to get to grips with the intensity of the English game, Holtz admitted, but if he’s able to adapt fast, “he can be the man”.
While it remains to be seen whether he can end up being “the man” in Daniel Farke’s promotion chasing Norwich side, he soon became “the man” for Dudelange, playing a starring role as history was made.
Sinani hit double figures – both goals and assists, with 11 each – during his first season with Dudelange, finishing with a league title, before making history with his teammates in 2018-19.
After they fell short in the first round of Champions League qualifying to Fehérvár, they progressed through the Europa League qualifying rounds – beating FC Drita Gjilan and Legia Warszawa – to set up a meeting with Romanian side, CFR Cluj.
Sinani scored three goals over the two legs, including a brace in a 3-2 second-leg away win at the Dr. Constantin Radulescu Stadium.
History had been made. Dudelange had become the first team from Luxembourg to qualify for the group stage of a European competition.
Fans were waiting for the squad as they arrived back in Luxembourg, with German outlet, 11Freunde even asking Sinani if he could expect a “Danel Sinani Stadium” in Dudelange soon, considering he’d just been the hero in a ground name after a player.
Sinani laughed it off, though admitted it would be nice, with games against AC Milan, Olympiacos and Real Betis now waiting for him and his teammates.
Days later, he’d follow that success with his first international goals in a 4-0 win over Moldova and 3-0 win against San Marino. The season brought another 11 goals and 10 assists, leading to Sinani being named Luxembourg’s Footballer of the Year in September 2019.
But if his 2018-19 was good, 2019-20 was to be even better.
Toppmöller left for Belgium in the summer, joining R.E. Virton.
Virton would make an approach for Sinani, one, according to Le Quotiden, he was pressured to accept. “I do not regret anything,” he later reflected, after not going through the move.
After all, having had proposals from Belgium’s top division, why go and play in the second?
A move to the Canaries, Sint-Truiden, to be precise, was also reportedly on the table – one of the top division proposals, Sinani alluded to – though he ended up remaining with Luxembourg, as Dudelange sought to make their way into Europe once again.
Valetta toppled them in Champions League qualifying, though Sinani went on to score five goals in six games as Dudelange once more made it into the Europa League group stage under new coach, Emilio Ferrera.
Ferrera resigned days before their first group game, away to APOEL Nicosia, though it didn’t stop Dudelange making history again with Sinani playing another pivotal role.
Two goals, an assist. Sinani had gone from a “big potential loser”, said Le Quotiden, to “the obvious big winner”. A move to Belgium would have put more eyes on him, sticking in Luxembourg with an early European exit could have proven disastrous for his future career prospects.
Now, though, he’d put himself firmly on the radar of clubs around the continent.
“It looks like he’s playing against children,” claimed his assistant coach, Lehit Zeghdane.
“I don’t know if it’s easy,” Sinani said, when asked how it was for him playing at this level. “But anyway, I’m doing it well. I don’t know how complicated it is for defenders to defend on this stuff.”
He continued to do things well, scoring a brace against eventual Europa League champions, Sevilla, before a late red card in the return fixture against APOEL ruled him out of Dudelange’s final group game.
Nevertheless, a record of 13 goals in 23 Europa League games – both qualifying and group stage – was impressive and as the new year came, a move to Norwich was touted.
A move in January didn’t end up happening, though.
Not that it deterred Sinani, who showed he was still eager to give his best to Dudelange, scoring a hat-trick and notching an assist in a 4-2 win over Titus Pétange.
He admitted that a move to England falling through had been a little hard to digest, but he’d wanted to still give his best and had his eyes firmly fixed on being the league’s top scorer – something he’d achieve with 14 goals in 16 games.
With his contract up in the summer, there was little doubt he would soon be moving on.
Even his coach, Bertrand Crasson, had felt Sinani was wasting his time a little in the BGL Ligue.
“Let’s be honest, he’s wasting his time this year in the BGL Ligue, so, next year, he’ll need to find himself a club capable of helping him take that next step. For now, however, it won’t make our opponents happy to see he’s still well and truly here.”
Sinani didn’t feel that, stating that he had still things to learn – especially in the Europa League – while revealing discussions with Norwich were “on the right track”.
And as for the prospect of playing in the Championship? “I am not afraid,” Sinani assured any in doubt.
Norwich would be relegated. The Luxembourgish season curtailed. And Sinani’s move to Carrow Road later confirmed in April, after 46 goals in 99 games for Dudelange, together with 29 assists.
Sinani ranked his experiences in European competition as useful for getting to grips with England, telling the Luxemburger Wort that he was keen to “push my limits”.
As for Luc Holtz, Sinani going off to ply his trade in one of the best leagues in Europe is key as Luxembourg looks to develop as a footballing nation.
“If a country like Luxembourg wants to improve, it’s the only way.
“Because the intensity of the games, the experience they get every week, will help them to take the right decisions on the pitch and it will help our national team to improve.” As for Sinani, while he has much to prove and plenty of competition to get into Daniel Farke’s starting eleven, Holtz has no doubt he’ll take to it with everything he’s got.
“He’ll start the new challenge with a big motivation and a strong mentality,” Holtz said to the Pinkun.
And it’ll be fascinating to see just how gets on.
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