The FIFA FIFPro Men’s World XI, announced at Monday night’s The Best awards, was whittled down from a shortlist of over 50 — which included only one player based in South America. And the name of Dani Alves did not figure because of anything he has done since recently joining Sao Paulo. It was a consequence of his deeds in the last European season with Paris Saint-Germain and — probably at least as important — his outstanding displays for the Brazil team in the Copa America, where he was chosen as player of the tournament.
The quest to stay in contention for the 2022 World Cup would appear to be one of the main reasons for Daniel Alves moving home after more than a decade and a half in Europe. But there is a price to be paid, as the player is already finding out.
It was all smiles on his debut last month, when he scored the only goal of the game against Ceara in the Brazilian league. He had a free role in midfield, able to direct operations and the team, buoyed by his signing, looked capable of hauling themselves into contention for the title. Over recent weeks, however, neither the results nor the performances have always lived up to expectations. And there is a deeper question.
“When I was in Europe, even I used to say that I wasn’t able to watch a game in the Brazilian Championship all the way through,” he confessed last week. “Because of the lack of rhythm and quality in the game, and now I’m experiencing this for myself. It’s very difficult to play here, and many times that is because of the condition of the pitches.”
Accustomed to the bowling greens of top European stadiums, he is finding it tough to adjust to the bumpier playing surfaces in lots of Brazilian grounds. It is something that makes it harder to play a passing game — to unroll the type of football that Dani Alves enjoyed being part of, especially in his victorious time with Barcelona.
“I’m a combination player,” he stressed. “I’m able to help my teammates if I can intervene in the game, if I have a lot of contact with the ball.”
It is not just the pitches that are making this difficult — it is also the way that Sao Paulo are set up.
Like most Brazilian teams, they tend to defend deep, with the lines of the team far from each other, the Barcelona type of associative game is not possible. It is clear to see that Dani Alves is finding this frustrating. On Sunday, away to Botafogo, he kept gesturing to his teammates to move higher up the field, to press with intensity when the opponent was starting to organise from the back.
Without such a press it took his team longer to regain possession. Indeed, Sao Paulo conceded a goal when the defensive line was lying ludicrously deep.
And when the team had the ball he was obviously annoyed with an excess of haste. Several times teammates went for highly optimistic long shots rather than seeking a more viable passing option. The displeasure of Dani Alves was plain to see.
Having such a player in their midst is a potentially massive boost not only for his Sao Paulo colleagues, but for domestic Brazilian football as a whole. It is a wonderful learning opportunity. Brazil has been out of the loop for a long time now. Last week former Arsenal defender Sylvinho was in charge of Lyon’s game against Zenit — the first time in almost a decade that a Brazilian has coached a side in the group phase of the Champions League. The lack of involvement in the international exchange of ideas has not been good for Brazilian football. But now one of their own has returned after hitting the heights abroad, and after being part of the revolutionary Pep Guardiola Barcelona side that has had so much influence on the way the game is played.
If Dani Alves is frustrated by what he sees around him in Brazil, it is an illustration of how much good he can do, of how much valid experience he has to pass on to his compatriots.
But there could be other frustrations along the way. His salary is said to be the highest in the Brazilian game, and Sao Paulo hoped that sponsors would appear to share the cost. So far, though, they have not found any.