After eight unbelievably solid months with Bayern Munich, their Brazilian centre-back did finally find himself out of position in Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena two weeks ago. Dante's team had just won the Bundesliga title with six games to spare but celebrations were disappointingly muted. With the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Juventus three days away, the club had decided this was not the time for festivities. Ritual Bavarian "beer showers" and the donning of naff T-shirts were ruled out. However, Dante, a first‑time winner of the German league, could not help himself.
The 29-year-old broke ranks to climb up a fence in front of the Bayern block, swapped his shirt for a plastic version of the Meisterschale (the championship bowl) with one fan, then ran back on to the pitch waving his bounty around with a touching, child-like euphoria. "The club want to put this thing in the museum but at the moment it's in my house," he says.
That bit of unfiltered joy cemented his status as the Munich supporters' new cult hero, and it has also become the defining image of Bayern's campaign thus far. It might have been the wrong trophy (Bayern will be handed the genuine article after their home game against Augsburg on 11 May) but it was certainly the right player. Dante, a defender of quiet, unassuming elegance and unshakeable calmness, has become the unlikely figurehead for a team on the brink of a historic treble. To be sure, fellow Bayern new boys Javier Martínez, the €40m midfielder from Athletic Bilbao, and the tireless striker Mario Mandzukic (€13m from Wolfsburg) have also added fine layers of quality that last year's beaten finalists might have been missing, but it is Dante's dependability, athleticism and passing that have taken Jupp Heynckes's side that extra step further. His skill set has enabled them to add some high, opponent-unnerving pressing to their game.
Next stop: the first leg in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona on Tuesday and for Dante the task of keeping Lionel Messi quiet. "He can do amazing things, he is the best player in the world," he says, matter-of-factly. The lack of any discernible sense of excitement is perhaps due to his strong belief that this season Bayern really do not have to fear anyone. "Barcelona have a great team, the greatest show on earth. But we are at our best at this moment in time, and we certainly won't change our game for them. We don't change for anyone." He adds that Barcelona's recent performances in the away games to Milan (a 2-0 defeat) and Paris Saint-Germain (2-2) have shown "that they concede goals".
So do Bayern, at least in Europe – 10 in 10 games. But in the league their figures look impossibly good. A mere "13" in the "against" column after 29 games tells of a superiority that has at times unsettled even themselves. "Our training sessions are often more intense than the matches," Dante admitted recently, but he is quick to channel praise away from himself and towards the team's collective endeavour. "We play as a unit, we're incredibly compact," he says. "When you get so much protection from midfield it's actually easy to play as defender."
He recalls his previous stint at Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he would find himself "maybe four or five times" one-on-one with a striker. "At Bayern, it might happen once in the game." He singles out French winger Franck Ribéry ("he's a super funny guy with a great sense of humour, but on the pitch he always fights, he wants to win, win, win") and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the team's midfield linchpin. "He's the maestro, he controls the tempo and flow of the whole ensemble."
But Bayern's strong squad and Heynckes's tactical tweaks are not the only important factors. Dante, who arrived at the club a few days after the traumatic defeat at the hands of Chelsea in their own ground in the Champions League final last May, feels that his team-mates have been spurred on by the disappointment. "Everything that has happened has made the team stronger," he says.
The club hierarchy had feared the opposite might happen. They installed the almost comically dour martinet Matthias Sammer as a sporting director to prevent a lame-duck scenario. At 67, Heynckes, soon to be replaced by Pep Guardiola, was always likely to retire in the summer. What they did not anticipate was just how well Heynckes would handle the dressing room in light of his rotation policy. Dante can take some credit for the great mood in the camp, as well. His professional but relaxed attitude has rubbed off on everyone, to the point that he is now seen as one of the team's indispensable leaders. "I've never seen such a positive player," says the club's CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. "He drives into training with a smile and he leaves with a smile." Local media have started to referring to him as the Abwehrchef, the boss at the back. "He's been a bullseye addition," says Heynckes.
At home they have woken up to his talents, too. Dante won his first call-up for the 2-1 friendly defeat by England in February, after which Luiz Felipe Scolari called him "a defender for the future of the Selecão". Recognition has taken its time. As a youngster Dante Bonfim Costa Santos failed to impress at a series of trials with clubs in Brazil's north-east. His father, an art restorer ("he named me after the poet") urged him to give up on his dream as they could no longer support him financially. The 17-year-old sold his video console to pay for the bus fare from his native Salvador to try his luck at Juventude in the south of the country. "He was surprised when I called him from there, asking him to send me money for clothes because it was so cold," he says, chuckling.
Juventude took a chance on him and in 2002 he was sold to Lille. Communication problems nearly caused a riot in the hotel restaurant. "They asked whether the food was good but I thought they wanted to know whether I wanted more. When I said no, the chef came out to remonstrate with me and everyone got very upset."
He moved on to Charleroi in Belgium in 2006. A year later, he was picked up by Standard Liège. He played alongside fellow afro-aficionado Marouane Fellaini and missed a penalty in the Champions League qualification play-off against Liverpool in 2009.
That December, Gladbach came calling. Dante played very well for the Foals but few realised the full extent of this late developer's talent. When Bayern triggered his release clause of €4.7m after a tip-off from their Brazilian right-back Rafinha, the headline of a press agency introduced him as the Reds' new "Schnäppchen-Verteidiger", a bargain defender.
"I was bought to challenge the players they already had," Dante says. But he always believed that he could be much more than a squad player. "You won't regret this," he told Rummenigge the moment after signing his contract. They certainly have not.