Alves , who is now at Paris Saint-Germain, says that he was close to reuniting with Guardiola at Manchester City last yearAURELIEN MEUNIER/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE TIMES
Published 12/11/18, The Times
Dani Alves, not for the first time, lets out that gravelly, infectious laugh of his. It has been put to him that your correspondent was also a full back in a not so distant past, but that we might as well have been playing different sports. A serious question will follow but half an hour in the company of the Paris Saint-Germain star in a hotel off the Champs-Élysées last week covered Alves’s humble beginnings in Juazeiro, Brazil, his part in the perhaps the greatest club side in history, the “genius” of Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi, three thwarted Premier League moves and reflections on a career that has yielded 39 major trophies, more than any present player.
But first: full back, wing back, auxiliary winger — Alves, at his peak, encompassed them all. Those buccaneering runs, nimble feet and a marriage of flair and industry elevated his play and influence down Barcelona’s right flank to heights rarely seen before. He made right back cool. As Jamie Carragher once famously, if a little cruelly, said: “No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.” Millions have grown up dreaming of being Dani Alves. Has any player in the modern era changed the perception of full back in quite the same way?
“Guardiola changed me,” Alves says. “He taught me how to play without the ball — that was incredible for me. It was a chain of events: he changed me, and I changed the concept [of full back]. He got the best out of me; he got the best out of all of us.”
In 2008, Alves joined Barcelona from Seville for €30 million (then about £23 million), 24 hours after Guardiola had been announced as the club’s head coach. Everything was about to change. As Alves explains in Take the Ball, Pass the Ball, a new documentary about the revolutionary four-year period when Barca won a remarkable 14 trophies, as a player he would have “jumped off the third tier of the Nou Camp” had Guardiola asked him to.
“Even in my first contact with him, it was his ideas that made an impression on me,” Alves says. “There’s no doubt about it. Football, teamwork . . . and [the conviction] that nothing would work if people didn’t think collectively. Those things made a mark on our lives because they are philosophies that can easily be applied to life too.
“He had that power to convince you that everything he thought about, everything he said, was for our benefit. They weren’t empty words. I always respected him for that. That’s why I said that I would jump if I had to because something good would come from it. Everything he said in the final meeting before a match — or 99 per cent of it — would happen in the game. It’s hard for people to understand that. Afterwards, he’d get the videos and show you. ‘Look, didn’t I tell you that this would happen?’ And they [the things he predicted] happened. All the time. The guy was just different.”
Alves was, of course, quickly struck by the “genius” of another orchestrator of that extraordinary team. His connection with Messi was immediate, and until last month, believe it or not, no player had provided the Argentina forward with more assists in La Liga — but Barca’s 1-1 draw away to Valencia means that accolade now belongs to Luis Suárez. “Our great connection wasn’t just about us being good at what we did,” Alves says. “At Barcelona we had a lot of great ‘executors’, but we also had great understanders of football — people who understood the concepts. ‘Ah, if my team-mate gives the ball in this position, I’ll give it back to him here, because I know he’ll be making that run.’ It was an amazing connection, with so much synergy. When we connected, our opponents didn’t have a chance.
“The hardest thing isn’t just doing it; it’s going back and doing it again, better than you did it before. Not many people have that ability. I believe that Messi is one of the few. He does something, then does it better, then does it better again. In that way, he has maintained his level for a long time. People are born with a gift, but they have to perfect it. The real key to his success is the perfecting of his gift.”
Take the Ball, Pass the Ball reflects on a series of colossal Champions League battles against Premier League teams. Of Andrés Iniesta’s memorable late volley that sent Chelsea crashing out of the 2009 semi-final at Stamford Bridge, Alves says: “The only thing that beats [moments like those] is sex.” He describes the 3-1 humbling of Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley as “the crowning moment of the reign of a team adored by its supporters, and by everyone who loves football”.
Yet despite their unprecedented success, in Guardiola’s final season at the Nou Camp cracks began to appear — something Alves admits could happen at Manchester City. “Guardiola has a powerful ability to get the best out of you, but there comes a time when everything gets worn out,” he says. “He gets so much out of you — so much, so much — that you don’t have anything left to offer him and he has no more to offer you. I think that’s what happened to us. He extracted all that he could from us, and then didn’t have the strength to extract more, or the strength to keep giving back to us.”
Was that why he turned down the opportunity to reunite with the Catalan last year? “It was a hair’s breadth away,” Alves says, pulling back his hat and, with a grin, affecting the plucking of a hair. “The circumstances of life took me in another direction. If the future gives me this possibility again, I accept. Right now I don’t think about that, I’m happy.”
The 35-year-old has just returned to training with PSG after a knee injury, suffered in May, which prevented him from adding to his 107 Brazil caps during the World Cup. He is hopeful, though, of a return to action before PSG host Liverpool — whom he came close to joining from Seville in 2006 — in the Champions League this month. Alves, who has never played at Anfield, was struck by the atmosphere during Liverpool’s thrilling 3-2 win last month. “The power of the fans to contaminate the players, that’s not something you see in many places in the world,” he says.
In 2007, a move to Chelsea, managed at the time by José Mourinho, collapsed at the final hour, “not due to any decision of mine, but because of a decision — as far as I understood — on Chelsea’s part”, Alves says. His relations with Mourinho would deteriorate during a series of feisty, attritional Clasicos when the Portuguese joined Real Madrid. “In life you have to be a great winner and a respectful loser,” he says. “And he’s not able to do that. He’s not able to be a respectful loser. In fact, I don’t like to use this word. I don’t believe that we lose. Either we win or we learn. But you have respect the moments when you don’t win. For some competitors, that acceptance is difficult. It’s in the blood that flows through their veins, and we can’t judge. I always focus on the positive side of people, not the negative.”
Alves’s positivity has permeated every dressing room he has been in and his effervescent character is also evident on social media, where posts displaying his love of music, singing and dancing are invariably accompanied by the hashtag, “good crazy”. “People on social media think that I’m crazy,” he says. “So I started to think, If I’m going to be crazy, I prefer to be good crazy . . . Trophies, victories: it’s all empty if there isn’t also a level of enjoyment behind it. If you start to view it all as an obligation, you lose the pleasure.”
Before every game, therefore, Alves stands before a mirror and reflects on his journey: rising at 4am to work the fields with his father Domingos, a farmer, before school each day, and competing with his four brothers to see who worked the hardest and deserved the family’s only bike to make the 12-mile journey to school; leaving home to join Bahia’s academy aged 13; leaving Brazil for Spain and Seville — a team he had never even heard of — at 18; and then the glittering, gilded career that has since unfurled.
“There’s something I’ve learnt in life: you have to know where you come from, where you are, and where you want to go,” he says. “It’s always important to know yourself, so you can reflect on that. Sometimes our surroundings, the privileges you have in this profession, can distract you, take that focus away. So whenever I experience important moments, I like to remember my whole journey and really enjoy the moment. Coming from where I started out, arriving at this level was something unthinkable in my life. I’ve done more than I could have ever hoped for.”