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Running Down A Dream

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Photo by Courtesy Of NKR.No
Vini Dantas celebrates after scoring his first professional goal in Molde's 3-1 win over Unión Estepona.

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March 9, 2012
Chris Baker

AZUSA, Calif.-- When the Azusa Pacific men’s soccer coaching staff first saw Vinicius Dantas it was on a grainy YouTube highlight reel of the Brazilian playing Futsal; a sport similar to indoor soccer without the walls. The clip was enough to spark interest, but despite his obvious talent there were questions about how his ability on the smaller indoor court would translate to collegiate men’s soccer.

Four years later those questions were answered and then some as Dantas made the leap from the small arena to the big time of professional European soccer as a striker for one of Norway’s premier teams, Molde F.K. after three seasons with the Cougars.

And while his rapid transformation from a relatively inexperienced and out of shape (self-admitted) newcomer at Azusa Pacific, to a sought after professional forward may seem like a shock, anyone that’s met, played with, or coached Vini is far from surprised about his development towards the pinnacle of soccer.

In 2008, his freshman year at Azusa Pacific, Dantas went through the expected growing pains. Which shouldn’t come as any sort of revelation seeing as he had to adapt to not only a new sport, but an entirely new culture. Socially it wouldn’t take long for him to find his place. He met Cougar keeper Joe Geletko early on, and the two hit it off right away.

On the soccer field, however, the transition wasn’t so smooth, and a foot fracture that he sustained over the summer didn’t help things much. But even at the beginning of his soccer conversion he showed flashes of brilliance, something that people took notice of quickly.

“I always knew from the first time I saw him touch the ball that he was good. He would do crazy things in the halls of the dorms,” said Geletko who lived with Dantas for three years. “We’d play futsal and he would be far and away the best player.”

But that was to be expected as his fast footwork was built for the tight quarters of dorms and halls and not the spacious confines of a 120-by-80 yard soccer field. So the challenge for the coaching staff, which was coming off an NAIA championship, was to figure out a way to maximize his ability in the more-open game of soccer; a gradual process that didn’t come overnight.

In his freshman season he scored just two goals and dished out two assists in 11 matches despite leading the Cougars with 35 shots. His shot percentage (.062) and shots-on-goal percentage were among the lowest on the team and he started just seven games while nursing an injury.

But in pure Vini fashion he showed marked improvements in his sophomore campaign. During the 2009 season he led Azusa Pacific in goals (12) and doubled his assist total to earn all-GSAC honors for a team that finished 16-3. He was also among the team leaders in shot percentage (.235) and shots-on-goal percentage (.627) with considerably better numbers across the board. The risk of taking on Dantas had begun to pay off.

“With his futsal background his skill was unbelievable, but transitioning into a soccer player was tough. There was a big learning curve that first year,” said head coach Dave Blomquist, who was an assistant in 2008 before promoted to the helm in 2009. “But one of the things I liked about him was that he kept getting better. He was great to coach because the motivation was there. I think his ambitions personally, and for the team drove him to work on his game.”

That sentiment was mutual as Dantas held not only the coaches, but the entire Azusa Pacific community in high-esteem.

“It’s kind of funny, but I never played soccer before Azusa Pacific. It was my foundation and it was great for me. I learned a lot from the coaches about understanding the bigger game. It was the beginning of my breakthrough” said Dantas. “I came in overweight with an injury. But the coaching staff, trainers, everyone helped me get back on my feet”

And once he was on his feet there was no stopping him on the field.

“He’d play 365 days a year if he could. He was really passionate about soccer. That passion would drive him,” said Blomquist. “The challenge was directing those efforts in the right get him to value the right parts of the game that would help him become a pro."

Some players, feeling as if they’ve arrived, may have let up after putting together an all-conference sophomore season. But for Vini such accolades weren’t enough to satisfy his desire to develop; his goals were far bigger. Dating back to his freshman year becoming a professional soccer player was on his radar, even if he wasn’t on anyone else’s.

“He was determined to be a professional soccer player. It was what he was going to do and nothing was going to stop him,” said Geletko.

So he trained non-stop, working on the areas he struggled in. Assistant coach Gareth Tomlinson helped him with a lot of his technical movements. Blomquist preached to him about ball movement and being aggressive. Those sessions proved to be worth their while as he built on his sophomore season with an even better junior one.

In 2010 he received second team NAIA all-American honors, was named to the all-GSAC team, and twice was the GSAC’s player of the week after leading the Cougars in goals (15), assists (9), points (39), and game-winners (6). He opened the season with consecutive two-goal performances and helped take Azusa Pacific back to the NAIA tournament after a two year hiatus with a 16-5-1 record.

And even though his personal achievements were welcomed, it was getting Azusa Pacific back into the tournament that he was most proud of.

“One of the special things about Vini is that he had unbelievable expectations for the team and himself. I wouldn’t say one really outweighed the other,” said Blomquist. “He wanted to lead this team to conference championships and the national tournament and at the same time he had aspirations to become a professional soccer player, and worked really hard to get there.”

In the spring of 2011 Dantas’ level of play had reached an all-time high. He became known for his daily ‘wow’ plays in practice, and was consistently among the best players on the field. His dreams of being a pro were gaining momentum towards becoming a reality more quickly than any had imagined, and even the coaches knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d see him suit up professionally.

“I would say it was last spring was when he really came into his own as a player. In every game that spring he was the best player on the field,” said Blomquist. “One of things I noticed was that every time he got the ball something good happened for the team. That showed me he was ready.”

The following summer he tested the waters at a tryout in England, and the forward played well enough to get an offer from the Tranmere Rovers (a first division club) and with one year of collegiate eligibility left Dantas had an incredibly difficult choice to make.

“I was in England when I had to make the decision. When I went for the tryout I was pretty successful, so when that contract came I talked to coach and my parents,” he said. “Alecia (his girlfriend at the time and now his wife) and I prayed a lot about it.”

“I didn’t expect him to get an offer,” said Geletko. “We were talking about the upcoming season and he told me about was kind of a shock for me, but I expected him to take it. He was ecstatic.”

But even though his aspirations of becoming a pro were finally being realized, the decision wasn’t cut and dry.

“Having a pro contract in front of me was very tempting because it was finally real,” said Dantas. “It was a tough decision, but I’m happy with the outcome. It was my dream and soccer is still my joy.”

That dream, however, would be put on hold after he couldn’t get a work visa approved to play in England, putting Dantas in limbo for a brief period. But another club made an offer, this time for a Premier team in Norway; which happened to be coached Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was one of Manchester United’s heroes of the club's 1999 title run in the Champions League. So after a slight detour, Dantas signed with Molde and hasn’t looked back.

After joining the club midway through the season Dantas began his career on the team’s reserve squad before working his way off the bench. He then made the 18-man roster nine times, making five appearances and starting twice.

Then, with his family in the stands, he scored his first professional goal, knocking in the team’s first score in a 3-1 win over Unión Estepona on February 23.

“For me it was really cool. I didn’t care that much about it being my first goal, but I was happy that my parents were in the stands to see it,” said Dantas.

He had arrived. That goal he had worked so hard to make a reality was finally coming to fruition. He had reached a place that seemed so distant when he was schooling kids on the Futsal court. And while it isn’t all fun all the time he isn’t complaining. Sure the workouts and the demands are harder than anything he’s experienced. Playing for a career has a different feel than playing for a school. But as his former teammate Geletko astutely noted, he’s living his dream, and not much can top that.

“Going from Azusa Pacific to Norway is big time, but he’d be happy to play anywhere. It’s his goal to make it to the premiere leagues, but he’s happy where he’s at, playing the sport he loves,” he said.

It’s been a quick transformation from the futsal court to the top Norwegian soccer league. And with just over three years of soccer experience under his belt it’s hard to fathom just how special his ascent has been. And while he may be happy where he’s at, his professional journey is far from complete. The Premier League is on his radar. Another lofty dream for someone that’s already had so many come true.

Dantas’ Futsal Highlights

Highlights From Dantas’ Career At Azusa Pacific