It doesn’t take much to get Dani Alves going. It doesn’t take anything in fact: sometimes just a hello will do. The Brazilian is falling about laughing before he’s even asked the first question. Laughing? He’s cackling.
“Let’s go!” he says and immediately he’s off, charging all over the place, a little like he plays. Like he used to, at least. There is a moment somewhere in the middle of a conversation that crashes by, virtually every word an excuse to crack up, grin never wiped from his face, when he says: “I think people are confused: people think football’s played inside those four white lines and it’s not; football’s played in the dressing room.”
Hearing him say it, the way he says it, enthusiasm overflowing, taking him to Qatar makes perfect sense.
But while that matters, don’t think that’s the only thing that attracted the selectao to the 39-year-old who was last seen in the middle of the Pumas midfield in Mexico, hasn’t played since September and could only train with Barcelona’s B team. Winner of 124 caps and of 49 trophies – his calculation – the Brazil head coach, Tite, calls him an “animal”.
Alves claims not having a competitive game in two months might even be a good thing – “when you play the risk of injury increases”, he laughs – and says: “I’m perfect. Mentally and physically I’m ready to help and not just from outside [the pitch] but inside. When you have a ‘good foot’, it’s like riding a bike: you never forget.”
Alves missed out on the 2018 World Cup through injury and says “that hurt but I don’t sink in my own pity”. He was determined not to miss this, the last time. “I don’t think I’ll be at the next one: I didn’t know if they would want me at this one, so imagine the next.”
“People ask me why I still play at 39. Because I love this game. I love it. I’m not here to waste time. I loved football when they didn’t pay me; now they do, great, but I play football because of the feelings it provokes.”
Has your game changed, though?
I’ve become more surgical. You can be as fast as you want but the ball flies and you’re never going to run that quick. Positioning matters: he who runs a lot, passes less. For me dominating this game, really mastering it, is not about what happens when the ball is at my foot but before it is at my foot. That’s always been the case and it’s what makes me different, what gives me a creative power others don’t have.
My characteristics were always to break models, systems, structures. In the end it is your identity, your creativity, your ideas, your decisions. Think. It’s not ‘cross the ball into the box’. Pass No. the ball to the teammate in the box. Put it in? Anyone does that. What’s the intent. Where’s my teammate? Where does he shoot from? What movements does he make? You have to see. If the ball goes to the first line, the second, the third, if it’s a pass that accelerates the move or slows it, if it controls, if it is a fake pass, if it is a pass with an objective.
What kind of World Cup do you expect?
The most even in recent years. Lots of teams have a high level, but I still think those with the best individual talents will be a step ahead. Teams are so focused on having strong players, players who are beasts physically, but football is a sport of good feet. Just running is another sport.
People focus so much on the physical that I sometimes wonder: what matters? What is a footballer? He who runs more or he who plays better? When you focus on physicality you reduce a player’s ability to create, to decide, to do something different.
Everything is being roboticised. Humanity is: you have to do this, this, this, this, this … where is the power of creation? That’s being lost. Don’t take that creativity away because you create robots. Never, ever lose that. Creation is the most beautiful thing there is. People think defending is the hardest task; no, no, attacking is. Talent still makes the difference.
Brazil have loads of it
In the 16, 17 years I have been in the national team, I think is the best moment in terms of the players. Modern football without forgetting our essence. There are lots of those players only Brazil is lucky enough to have, talent in every position and good balance. In terms of creativity maybe we are a little step ahead of others but that doesn’t mean anything
I always think Brazil are favourites. History and tradition counts. We’ve suffered a lot in recent years but there’s a very solid group, with a ‘shell’ that’s very hard. This is the best Brazilian dressing room in recent years. Good talent, good people.
How important is Tite’s role in that?
Tite manages the group, gets the best from everyone, and that’s the hardest thing in football. That’s his power: leadership, the relationship. I don’t think I have the words to define the power he has, his ability.
Playing for Brazil at a World Cup always brings intense pressure
Pressure is there, always, in all areas of life: a father who needs to feed his family lives with a brutal pressure. Mentally, you need balance. You have to be transparent, sincere.
The problem with Brazil is that there’s a bubble blown up: you’re going to win. And that’s not true. There’s an expectation so great that when it’s not met, anything can happen. We have to be a bit more honest in football. We are in an incredible moment, we have a very strong group, but does that mean we will win the World Cup? No. You have to pedal. Pedal, my brother.
What do you make of Argentina?
I have been saying for years – and I shouldn’t because I can’t face seeing Argentina as champions – that Argentina didn’t realize they had Messi. They have finally realized, so they’re more dangerous than a couple of years ago when they didn’t. Now they’ve worked it out.
You’ve played with him, Neymar and also Mbappe
PSG has the best trio of attackers seen for a long time. Kylian needs to understand – and I have told him this – who’s alongside him. He is a phenomenal player but he hasn’t seen who is there and they’re a little more phenomenal than him.
The creative power Messi and Neymar have, no one in football has. They see things that no one, no one, no one, no one, no one sees. Since I have played football, I’ve not seen anyone with that. We are talking about the two great geniuses of football. He has to be intelligent to allow them to bring out all the talent he has inside him, the things he does so well.
And that is? Break into space, receive, rather than drop to play?
I consider myself good at passing but if I have Messi next to me, if I have Neymar next to me, I give them the ball to make that pass. I think I can pass, hey, but they do it better. Sometimes it’s a problem having so much talent occupying the same spaces and you need to find a way to make it connect.
No one is great on their own. What makes humans great is knowledge, understanding virtues and defects. So if I have those two alongside me, I pass them the ball, they assist and … 150 goals a year.
Is that what made that Barcelona so good? That Luis Suárez had the intelligence to realize that?
That’s it, that’s it. You can be the business but there’s always [someone who is] the absolute business. People used to talk about us playing two-touch. The thing is, you play two touches to get the ball to Leo. You play two touches to take the ball to Ney. You don’t do it because the coach likes two touches.
You have to understand those concepts, why you do things. Get the ball to the guy who can do five, six, 10, 50 touches. To do that everyone has to know their strength, because it’s the harmony that’s powerful.
Brazil have two special emerging talents with Rodrygo and Vinícius
I am a big fan of Rodrygo. I could spend all day talking about him. He’s a phenomenon, a prodigious talent who sees things no one else does, who plays where no one else does with daring, personality. It’s a long time since I saw a player like him. When he was at Santos I told friends: he’s going to be a football great, without doubt.
Viní brings the spectacular: a brutal individual talent, speed, power, an incredible willingness to take people on. He maybe has to work on the combinative play, which Rodrygo already has, but he’s, wow, amazing. There’s still a process to come. We can’t forget with a lot of these players that we’re talking about people who are 20, 21, 22.
And Anthony? Could he be the star to break through at this tournament?
Could be. Why not? He’s a phenomenon. You have to be careful in football because it’s a huge machine of distraction and you have to find balance, not be carried away when you’re in your best moment or when you’re not in your best moment.
Beyond Brazil, who do you like?
Musiala … Gnabry … Sané … players who have something a bit different. I like players who are magical for football lovers, like Pedri, like Gavi, players who do something that makes football more emotional. I saw Ansu the other day and he said “I bet you don’t remember me. I have a photo with you when I was a kid”. I said of course I do. Your face stayed with me, I said then you were going to be the face of La Masia.
What about right-backs? Who’s the next Dani Alves?
Being the ‘next’ is very difficult and saying that puts a senseless pressure on players. It’s hard to be Alves, Cafu, Carlos Alberto. Make your own history. I’m a big fan of João Cancelo. Reece James is brutal. I like that Dani Alves too.
People make mistakes because they don’t know football. What’s a defensive full-back? What’s an offensive full-back? It depends on the characteristics of the team. Talking about Trent Alexander-Arnold, he’s a player I love, because just as important as the player who can dribble round five is the one who can ‘dribble’ them with a single pass. The effect is the same, but with one difference: it’s quicker.
Look at the objectives fulfilled. Trent has that 40-yard switch that breaks a two line press in one go. It might look less brilliant than going round three men but anyone who can take out six players like that, wow.
And the old Dani Alves, what next? You’re 39 …
All humans are the same, we just occupy different positions, roles. Everyone’s a phenomenon. It is not that I am a footballer, it is that I am in the position of footballer. I’m much more than just ‘footballer’. Football will end, but my life won’t. And legacy is about more than winning: there are people who have won the World Cup and are forgotten.
Kids’ films always teach you, if you’re paying attention, and Kung Fu Panda tells you that the future is unknown. The present is beautiful, embrace it. I love being responsible, ready. You never know what’s coming. So I am ready. I don’t make plans. I will stretch out my time in football as long as I can because I love it. And also because if there aren’t people here defending creativity in football a bit, it will die.