‘I’m here to be positive’ – Dani Alves feelgood factor returns to Barcelona | Sid Lowe
Dani Alves went up the stairs and into the light at the end of the tunnel, where he stepped past a mat positioned at the edge of the Camp Nou pitch with Johan Cruyff’s most famous instruction written on it. “Go out there and enjoy it,” it said, as if Alves needed telling. Oh he was going to enjoy this, all right. That, after all, was what he was here for – part of the reason he had rejoined Barcelona five years later – and they couldn’t have wiped the smile off his face if they had tried.
At the white line, Alves paused and slipped off his flip-flops – yes, flipflops – and stepped on to the pitch barefoot. He wanted to feel the grass, he said. In the stand above, 10,378 people roared and he laughed, which he did a lot. Wearing a black polo neck, a black velvet jacket and nothing on his feet, he took the microphone and, looking up at it all, cackled like Sid James. The Dani Alves show was back in town, and they were loving it. “Alves! Alves! Alves!” they chanted.
He paraded back and forth, bowed and waved and pulled faces and cracked up, an atmosphere of celebration around him. It might have been a bit silly, and it was natural to wonder whether a 38-year-old free agent who hasn’t played for five months can really rescue Barcelona, especially when the club’s chief executive, Mateu Alemany, admitted there was no money to sign anyone else, but maybe they need a bit of that. “In recent years they have loaded negative things on to their shoulders,” Alves said. “It’s time to change and you need to be positive. That’s my mission here.”
And so it went, until he signed off with his own twist on the traditional rallying call: “Long live Barça! Long Live Catalonia! And long live the mother that gave birth to you all!”
He insisted “I’m one of you” and, still barely believing this was happening, kissed the pen with which he was invited to sign his contract, table and papers prepared on the pitch. That contract starts now, although he can’t play until 1 January, and runs out at the end of the season, but the 2022 World Cup is his target and Alves said that in these six months he would do what he could to convince the club to extend that deal. “If I fail, I’ll pack the suitcase myself. ‘Ciao!’” he said.
That was not all he signed or kissed. He signed the billboard with his Warhol-style image on, doing so with a smiley face, and he kissed the shirt of course. On the back was an eight, the fifth number he has worn here after two and 20, 22 in honour of Eric Abidal, and six in honour of Xavi Hernández, the former teammate who is now his manager. That is a trend he said he was continuing. “I believe in paying homage to people while they’re still alive,” he insisted, citing Hristo Stoichkov and Andrés Iniesta and bringing another cheer, more kisses.
“The last time I had this microphone, I said the dream wouldn’t end there,” he told them. “That’s why I’m here again.”
Why, was the question. What could Alves offer? “I might have a bit less hair but some things never change: the spirit, the fight, the soul,” he said in the press room, dark glasses added to his outfit, but still no shoes. He also reckoned he was more handsome now and claimed that he had been so “pesado”, such a pain, constantly calling Joan Laporta and offering to play pretty much for free, that in the end the president passed him on to Xavi to get rid of him. “And when Xavi called and said they could do with my help, I didn’t want to hear anything else,” Alves said.
As much of the focus was on the personality as it was on the player, and Alves talked about what he could do off the pitch, about “harmony” “synergy” and a “dressing room [that] is better with me in it”, about how he could change the culture at the club, returning them to the way they were. The man who has more winner’s medals than anyone else suggested “those of us with more kilometres on the clock” could help the younger generation, pointedly talking up Ousmane Dembélé. And when it came to sending footballs sailing into the upper tier, he had failed three times, giggling as the shots fell short.
But it didn’t matter. And for all that the character is part of the charm, for all that the showmanship and nostalgia was unavoidable – asked whether Lionel Messi could come back too, Alves replied “give me a couple of hours and I’ll go and get him myself” – there has always been a seriousness about him, an iron competitiveness. And he insisted that has not changed. “Lifting cups is what’s really special,” he said.
Since Alves left in 2016 Barcelona have spent €85m on right-backs, and none has adequately replaced him. “I’m special,” he said. He was laughing but he was right, just as he was when he said that “sometimes here it’s not enough just to be a great player”. There was another glimpse of that ambition in his refusal to meekly accept the assumption that he is here to play a pastoral role, still less a secondary one. Or that his position may shift.
“I come to play as a full-back,” Alves said. “But I can do other things and when you put a limit on what you can do, it reduces your chances. My focus is the team. Xavi will decide. I am training as a full-back, working to win my place. Not because of what I did before but what I do now, to earn the right to wear this shirt. Many things in life change but the desire doesn’t. I’m coming here to fight. I know what this club represents. If we all pull in the same direction this boat will reach the port sooner.”
Asked whether he expected to be a back-up option, he shot back: “I wasn’t born to be second. I’m not here to pass the time, just to live in Barcelona. I’m here to go to war. I’m here to fight to play. Not because of my history or because I have a good relationship with the coach, the president or the club, but because of my work. Age is just a number. There are lots of older players at a very high level and that’s my objective. I showed that at the Olympics. People expect the best of me and I’m going to respond. I’d like to thank everyone for coming here and I can guarantee I won’t let them down.”