Dani Alves left Brazil in 2002 at the age of 19. He returned 16 years later and came back to a very different country. It wasn’t one he liked. The pandemic has hit Brazil hard but it was the increased gap between rich and poor that particularly disturbed him.
According to a survey by Penssan towards the end of last year, Brazil has 19 million people who are too poor to eat what they need. A further 117 million, more than half the population, are at risk of “food insecurity”, meaning they are not guaranteed to have enough to eat on a daily basis.
“This is an issue that shocked me,” says Alves as he settles down for our Zoom interview. “I can’t understand this huge difference in society. It is shocking because I didn’t see it when I lived in Brazil. I grew up in a place that was like a farm and we didn’t have money, but we exchanged stuff.
“It was a more human society then. After that, when I left Brazil, I started to live a different reality. And now it is a reality shock. I don’t want to be seen as a different man from other people although it is tough because people only talk about money like it was the most important thing in the world. It isn’t. I think people have lost the sense of what is important.”
A lot changed for Alves during his 17 years away from his country. He won 40 titles (he is now on 43). He became famous, he became rich and built a spectacular career playing for Sevilla, Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. He realised a dream when he signed for São Paulo in 2019, the club he has supported throughout his life.
But it was Barcelona who made him a superstar. Having joined in 2008 he spent eight years at Camp Nou, winning six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups. He had the privilege of being part of one of the best club sides in the game’s history with players such as Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Gerard Piqué. Indeed, he was an integral part of that side, crucial to the way they played.
He left in 2016 for Juventus, where he played for one season, before joining PSG for two campaigns. But it is clear, as we speak for almost an hour and a half, that nothing comes close to playing for Barça. The past few seasons have not been easy for the club, however, and for Messi in particular, who said last year that he wanted to leave but ended up staying to “avoid a legal dispute”.
To stay or not to stay? For Alves, it is an easy choice. “I have said to Messi several times: he was born to be a Barcelona player and Barcelona were born to be his club,” he says. “He has given me advice before so I can do the same to him. Once he told me to stay in Barcelona because there wasn’t any place that was better. ‘Where will you be happier?’ he asked me. So I stayed.
“Now I have reminded him of that conversation and that a good friend [him] advised me that Barcelona is the best place ever. I haven’t had an answer from him yet but when you leave Barcelona you realise how good it is. All the players, and I mean everyone, who has left Barcelona have been sorry. All of them regret leaving, irrespective of the reason.
“When I left the club, I just wanted to show my value to get back. But, unfortunately, the same people, who were against me when I was at the club, stayed there. I showed that I was able to play for Barcelona for another 10 years. I tried to go back to Barcelona. I wanted to go back to Barcelona. I played to go back to Barcelona, but they didn’t want me any more,” he says with the sadness apparent in his voice.
Alves’s arrival at Barcelona coincided with Pep Guardiola stepping up to take charge of the first team and the two had a wonderful time on the pitch, where they won 14 trophies together, but also off it. In 2017, five years after he had left Spain, Guardiola came calling, wanting Alves to sign for Manchester City. The Brazilian, however, chose to join PSG.
“Can I be sincere?” he says now. “I regret it. Not that I choose PSG, not at all. I am not sorry for playing for PSG, of course I am not. My time in France was incredible. But it was my fault it didn’t work out with Manchester City. The deal was all OK but I had some personal problems and had to change my plans.
“It would have been wonderful to work with the man who changed my life again. There is a bad taste to have failed to do that, to have failed him. I don’t like to fail people and especially not those who believed me, trusted in me and helped me become who I am today. I have already said sorry to him [Guardiola]. I failed. But I am a human being and I make mistakes.”
Manchester City were not the first English club interested in Alves. In 2006, after a strong season with Sevilla, who defeated Middlesbrough in that year’s Uefa Cup final, Liverpool wanted the full-back to join them but again a deal did not happen.
“It’s my broken wing to not have played in Premier League. I have a huge respect for football in the country because England is where football was born,” he says, before laughing and adding: “Although later we in Brazil adopted the game and took better care of it! Seriously, though, when I was at Sevilla I came close to joining Liverpool. I don’t know how my life would have turned out but Liverpool is one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
Alves is 37 now but has no fixed plans for the future. He is keeping his options open and is interested in coaching. His playing career, however, is far from over. He is desperate to win a trophy with São Paulo, whose last triumph was in 2012 when they won Copa Sudamericana. He also wants to play for Brazil in the 2022 World Cup.
Three years ago he sustained a knee injury before the 2018 World Cup and was sorely missed by the team. Refusing to give up, though, he made his comeback and was rewarded with the player of the tournament prize when Brazil won the 2019 Copa América.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future but what I can say that if I decide to become a coach I will be very prepared. And even if I don’t end up working as a coach I want to understand more of football, despite the fact that I think I understand 99% of the game. But now I can’t see myself as a coach, because I think I have many things to do in football as a player before.”
Remarkably, having played most of his career at right-back, Alves has developed into a world-class midfielder in recent years. He does feel, however, that his efforts in that position are not being appreciated as much in his own country as they are in Europe.
“I like to compete” he says. “I am always studying to improve my game. However, unfortunately, I live in a country where Joshua Kimmich playing as a midfielder is very cool, but me playing there isn’t cool. Why? I can perform in any position. I played at PSG as a midfielder. When I was there [Thomas] Tuchel told me that the right side of the field was too small for me because all good players need to have the ball all the time.
“He said it was a waste having me as a right-back. It’s funny. In Brazil I need to be right-back because I was the best right-back in the world. But if I return to right-back they will say I’m old. But just look at the statistics. I am performing well. Whoever works with me knows what I can do. I am not a child who is starting now. My mind says just one thing: performance. I need to perform. This is my obsession.
“The World Cup [in 2022] is a dream that I won’t give up. I will fight to keep myself at a high level and to have this last experience with my national squad. This is my challenge. It’s no use just dreaming. I will compete. Now it’s time to work and to build. What motivates me are competition and my dreams. As long as I am alive I will fight for my dreams.”
The dream of winning something with São Paulo came a little bit closer last year but they lost a seven-point advantage towards the end of the season to finish fourth, five points behind Flamengo. It was a turbulent campaign and one that seems to sum up the situation in Brazil. In the top division, with 20 teams, 27 managers were sacked in 2020 – including São Paulo’s Fernando Diniz, who Alves ranks as one of the top three managers he has worked with, the other two being Guardiola and Tite.
“Diniz is ahead of most coaches,” says Alves. “His ideas and the work he is doing. You can say ‘he didn’t win the title’ but I’m not talking about that. I am talking about football. I admire him so much. He cares for people, has many ideas about football and he knows what he wants from football.
“If I am honest he is not a coach for our country. Brazil is a cemetery for coaches and players. Our system is based on things always being the same. When you try something different, people are against you because if it works, it will change the whole system.”
Devastated by the pandemic under the leadership of the president, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil is in crisis: the Covid-19 death toll has hit 400,000 with more than half of those coming this year alone. The numbers are frightening and there appears to be no prospect of the situation improving soon.
Alves knows how hard the situation is, but life goes on. Despite all the changes and current difficulties, he tries to keep the same mentality which helped him to become such a special and highly decorated player.
“They said it’s easy to play with Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Mbappé. I agree, but how many reached it? It’s hard the way to do it. I have been the same guy since the beginning. My dreams, wishes and desires remain the same. I always wanted to triumph to be where I am today and I want more. My strength is it. Perseverance is the word that defines me. My flame is still burning.”