Sometimes a player has the ability to infuriate and excite at the same time, both heightening our enjoyment of the game whilst diminishing it in equal measure. If this tag applies to any of Barca’s current crop, then without doubt it is our diminuitive Brazilian Dani Alves.
Since his arrival two seasons ago, the fleet footed wing-back has quickly become a firm favourite with the Barca fans, providing as he has such strong support for Lionel Messi. Arguably, he has allowed the Argentinian the freedom to become the greatest player in the world whilst improving his own reputation no end.
Or should that be two reputations? For during his second season in blaugrana colours certain traits have diminished the Brazilian’s standing in the eyes of many observers, with the most notable concern being his fondness to go to ground when challenged, which when combined with a Busquets-like enjoyment of play-acting really does test the resolve of even the firmest of Alves’ followers.
Without doubt the Brazilian is one of, if not the best player in his position in the current game, all blistering energy and passion, but with many already doubting his natural defensive abilities there is little room for our current number 2 to bring his name into further disrepute.
During his first season with Barca, Alves became the poster boy for Pep Guardiola’s football ethic – attack minded, intelligent, full of flair and creativity but with enough gusto and aggression not to shy away from the more physical aspects of the game. Alves was, and still is, a Guardiola player through and through.
He is also a Brazilian player through and through – more enamoured of the attacking elements of the game, comfortable with the ball at his feet, capable of wonderful trickery and moments of inspiration. He plays with the kind of freedom and enjoyment found only in young children and Brazilians. Like Rivaldo and Ronaldinho before him, he plays the game with a smile on his face.
But it is not the smile that has become the issue. It is the grimace. The sight of Alves rolling on the floor, ankle in hand, pain written across his features as if he has incurred some serious damage to his person – when in fact he has barely even been touched, if touched at all. This is a truly frustrating aspect to Alves’ game, bringing his whole reputation and wonderful quality into question, so strong is the revulsion play-acting creates within many pundits and neutrals.
It would seem that during his first season with Barca the Brazilian managed to pull the wool a little more than he has during the last campaign, with referees now becoming wise to Alves’ prat-falls and (let’s be honest) blatant dives. The slightest touch or tug of the shirt and down he goes, all wild indignation and fury, then free-kick given, the chesire cat grin returns and he’s away, back up and running.
Now it has to be said Alves is not the only player to do this – we can name many, many players who practise the art of ‘simulation’, and arguably do it even better than Dani. The problem arises when the reputation proceeds him – allowing referees to make decisions before a game has even begun.
Picture a referee sitting in his comfy quarters going through his pre-match routine – cards, notebook, whistle, etc. He is running through the squad lists for the two teams he is about to officiate over. ‘Oh I see Dani Alves is playing, he may well be funny and he may well be charismatic but he is not bloody getting one over on me today!’
Okay, this may not be the exact train of thought but it must be pretty darn close. For it has happened before. Think of Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba. Players so intrinsictly linked to play-acting and taking a tumble that many referees turn a blind eye to genuine fouls upon their person. Or even Steven Gerard, a player so famous for having wobbly legs in the box that last season referees turned down numerous stone-wall penalties so aware were they of his reputation for diving.
And now we Barca fans also know the frustration of such pre-game decision making, what with the blatant penalty that never was against Inter Milan at the San Siro. If that had been any other player than Dani Alves, would the decision have been given in Barca’s favour? Well who knows? One thing is for sure, referees know which players are going to try and con them and which are not. Unfortunately it would now seem Dani is firmly placed in this first set.
Perhaps even worse than the diving is the play-acting that goes along with it – the rolling around, slapping the floor, insisting on serious injury, which is usually followed by what many see as the most reprehensible of footballing gestures – the imaginary card waving from player to referee. All of this does little to make Alves particularly popular amongst those not of the Barca persuasion. Worse than that, it has the effect of turning many against the club the perceived dramatist plays for.
Thus this season may have seen a backlash from many neutrals who now see Barca as incapable of dealing with the rough stuff the way they once did, always expecting decisions from referees, unable to take it when those expected decisions do not arrive. Okay we’re not quite at the ‘Chelsea-Drogba-Ballack’ stage just yet, but people are beginning to wonder, and down that path only shame and self-pity dwell.
So combining Dani’s indiscretions with Busquets now infamous ‘glimpse’ and Mourinho’s very own ‘watergate’ – turning on the sprinklers, however funny it may have been at the time, was not perceived well by those outside the club – are all leading us to a less than dignified place. ‘Mes que un club’ is beginning to feel a little less noble than it did 12 months ago.
In order to stop the rot, and turn people back on to what the club should, and more often than not does represent, we must stop our leading play-acters from continuing their favoured pastime. And who better to begin this turnaround that Alves himself. If next season he was to stay on his feet that little bit longer, and more importantly not make such a great fuss of it when he is brought to ground, then people’s affection and respect will return and we can get on with discussing the many fine aspects of his game, rather than just the frustrating and undermining incidents.
For we can all surely agree that Alves is a wonderful footballer, his imagination and drive proving priceless during Pep’s time in charge. As we all know there is probably no better wing-back in the game when it comes to getting forward. He is also a lot stronger in the tackle and more tactically aware defensively than he is given credit for – especially when you consider the amount of ground he covers during a game.
Yes he could improve his crossing and learn not to jump into tackles he’s never going to win, but all in all he is a well-rounded and technically gifted player who brings more than just his ability to the team. He is a big personality on and off the field, a player whose charisma shines through no matter what the circumstances, a leader without an armband.
Since arriving at Barca, Alves has been a polarising figure, riling opposition players and supporters whilst drawing Barca fans ever closer to him. From day one – when he spoke in Catalan at his unveiling – it was apparent that the player felt at home with the club, and vice versa. Here was a player similar to the likes of Luis Enrique or Hristo Stoichkov, full of charisma and charm, easy to watch with the ball but with a keen ability to make his opinions known, especially when those opinions are set to wind up his enemies in Madrid.
These kind of players often find a special place within the hearts of football fans. They are more than just a player. They are a figurehead, something for fans to unite behind, reflecting as they do the common sentiment found within the stands. They are forgiven off games or poor performances for the dynamism and passion they display makes us feel we are there, present on the pitch when the team steps out. All teams have these kinds of players, hate figures who provoke opposition fans – think of Guti or Drogba or Matterazzi – with their pantomime villain image proving even more lovable for their own followers.
So some people may see Dani as arrogant or unruly, some may think he is over-rated or ill disciplined but most, if not all, would love to have him within their own ranks. And perhaps this is a crucial point, because Barca have often been found far too likeable in recent seasons – with people admiring the football but over-looking the personality. Yes this can be a positive thing, but when faced with such adversity and diversionary tactics as those employed by the Madrid press last season, it can prove priceless to have someone pop their head above the parapit and say ‘You don’t like us, we don’t care’.
This is something Dani does with ease, his wild eyes and cheeky grin often showcasing his mischievous nature before he has even spoken a word. But for us to truly stand behind him and fully love his quality and provocative charms, he must clean up his act on the field. He hasn’t got to be perfect, just better than most. Only then can we really defend him. Only then will his personality really shine through. For, as Barca know already, having a reputation that proceeds you can be a rather damaging thing.
So let’s try and keep them on their toes, shall we Dani, and not see if you can’t stay on yours a little longer too!