If I had the chance to befriend any professional footballer, then it would be Dani Alves. Hands down. That might sound like an odd desire to have, or even a weird choice to make, but there it is. I find Alves, with the exception of Roy Keane, to be the most compelling personality in the sport, and unlike Keane I do not think that his scowl would decapitate me twenty yards before I reached him. In the modern era Alves and his fellow Brazilian Cafu made it cool to be a right-back, which until they came along was about as sexy as playing the accordion. And that’s no disrespect to the accordion – okay, maybe it is – but right-backs are hardly the electric guitarists of their teams. They’re steady and dependable, rarely welcomed to the stage – before Alves and Cafu, they were pretty much roadies.
Why do I find Alves so interesting? Well, it’s the contradictions. On the field he is as flashy as any pop diva, but he has the work ethic of a single parent supporting five kids. It is very rare to see such a blend of talent and honest toil – superheroes don’t often come across this blue-collar. But Alves – at Bahia, Sevilla, Barcelona and now Juventus – has for years gone about his job with a dizzying diligence. In his prime, in La Liga, there were times when you would have been unsurprised to watch him surge up the wing, so ubiquitous that he seemed to be playing one-twos to himself. Of course, he has made his mistakes, but at his best he has been the very soul of focus.
Come to think of it, it is not fair to describe Alves as a right-back, because that implies that his dominance of that lane of the pitch has been anything less than total. Instead, it is more accurate to call him “a right-flank”. Take his most recent elite performance, Juventus’ 3-0 home win over Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League. In that match, he not only shackled Neymar but also provided a vital impetus in attack – showing himself, at the age of 33, to be still one of the most decisive players in world football. Among the many startling statistics around Alves – beyond the 20-odd major trophies, including six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues – one stands out; which is that, during his time at the Nou Camp, he provided more assists to Leo Messi than any other player. More than Xavi, more than Andres Iniesta. How many other right-backs – sorry, right-flanks – in the history of the game can claim to have had the vision and the technique that would be the envy of most number 10s?
Many of you will have seen the videos of Messi and Alves warming up before Barcelona matches, where they endlessly volley the ball between themselves over distances of thirty or forty yards. If you venture onto YouTube, too, you will also find a trove of footage where the two of them put on a bewildering display of short passes in the final third; witnessing them ruthlessly raid the most disciplined of defences is like watching jewel thieves in real time. Yet the chemistry of those exchanges are only a hint of what Alves clearly brought to the Barcelona dressing-room. When he left that club, his departure was lamented by those closest to him. His comical training ground antics reminded everyone that for all football’s trappings it was just a game, and amid the furious pressures of that club his joyfulness must have seemed like an oasis. Judging by his Instagram account, he is infectiously childlike, almost as excited to win a game of Monopoly as he is to claim a club title; judging by that same account, he is also guilty of some of the gravest offences perpetrated against fashion.
In short, if a delegation of aliens invaded earth and asked us to play football against them for the fate of our planet, Alves would be one of the first on my team-sheet. Then, after we had thrashed said aliens, I would then send him on a night out with them, given that he seems to be one of the most affable characters in the known universe. I once read that Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos had tried his hand at bullfighting; by contrast, Alves probably would have bought that bull out of slavery, and then promptly got drunk with it.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to see him play in the flesh; it was a cold night in West London, as Brazil came to Craven Cottage to play Ghana in a friendly. It was June 2011, so Ronaldinho was by then firmly in the jogging stage of his career, though still majestic. Alves, I noticed at once, was very short – or, at least, far shorter than I expected. He wasn’t as elegant as I thought he’d be, either – when a pass came to him, he seemed to crouch nervously in anticipation, as if fearing that he could only control the ball was by smothering it with his entire body. But then, at the last moment, he thrust out a right foot, and the ball joined his advance as obediently as a golden retriever on a Sunday morning stroll. If anything, Alves’ size and gait made me admire him all the more; because that evening, like countless others in his career, he still managed to stand taller than almost anyone else. When Alves retires, we surely won’t see his like again – but, then again, we barely saw his like before.