Dani Alves' Dream Return to Brazil Is Not Going to Plan

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist INovember 4, 2019

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On October 30, Sao Paulo took on Palmeiras in one of Brazilian football's biggest derbies, and one man was dominating the pre-match discussions. 

"Is it a crime to leave Dani Alves on Sao Paulo's bench?" asked a headline on ESPN's SportsCenter in Brazil.

Rewind to July, and no one could have seen such a question being asked. 

Back then, Alves had just been chosen as the best player of the Copa America as he lifted the 40th trophy of his career. 

Following his departure from Paris Saint-Germain, he had managed to attract 18 offers from multiple sides around the world before eventually deciding to fulfill a longtime dream and return home to sign a three-year deal with Sao Paulo, his boyhood club.

When he was unveiled at the Morumbi stadium, over 40,000 fans packed into the stands to welcome him, while messages of support from former team-mates, such as ex-Barcelona colleagues Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, were displayed on the big screen.

The excitement was palpable—a poll made by Globo Esporte voted him the fourth-biggest signing of all-time in Brazilian football, behind only Romario to Flamengo in 2005, Ronaldo to Corinthians in 2009 and Ronaldinho to Flamengo in 2011.

He took just 39 minutes of his debut to make an impact, scoring the game's decisive goal against Ceara.

Ten matches later, however, all the hype had vanished.

When Sao Paulo visited Palmeiras last week, the 36-year-old found himself under fire. Having played mostly in midfield since his return, he was placed in his usual right-back spot, but he could not prevent an overwhelming 3-0 defeat.

Unlike some of the team's youngsters, Alves did not speak to the press in the mixed zone after the clash. Sao Paulo's boss, Fernando Diniz, on the other hand, was once again asked about which role suited the Brazil international best.

Although Alves has pushed for a more advanced role, he hasn't exactly been lighting it up in the middle of the pitch.

Despite having built up one of the most impressive CVs in football history during his time in Europe at massive clubs (Sevilla, Barcelona, Juventus and PSG), it appears that even Alves himself wasn't anticipating such hysteria over his homecoming.

"I believe that these have been the most intense three months of my career," he reflected in a recent interview with SporTV, explaining why he had spent most of his glorious career abroad.

"There's no stability here [in Brazil]. How can you build a career here? I've got just three months back in Brazil and I'm already useless. 

"I'm the biggest player in the history of football [in terms of trophies] and yet there's already a debate on whether I'm useful or not. Man, I've got three months in Brazil. Damm, I played for eight years at Barcelona, won 23 titles because you have stability—you don't build things overnight."

Alves enjoyed a glorious spell at Barcelona
Alves enjoyed a glorious spell at BarcelonaMARWAN NAAMANI/Getty Images

Alves has returned to play club football in his homeland for the first time since leaving at the age of 19 back in 2002.

Back then, he was just another promising teenager looking to make his way at Bahia, whose manager at the time, the legend Evaristo de Macedo, didn't even know his name, referring to him as "Samuel" instead of Daniel. 

Alves ultimately established himself in the first team before being whisked off to Sevilla for a bargain price.

In truth, the much-coveted veteran had never really had a real glimpse of what Brazilian football is actually like.

"When it comes to Brazil, he's only had a small experience. Obviously, he had already enjoyed a few situations with the national team, played a World Cup, the Copa America, winning it on home soil—they all give you a fair idea of what it's like, but not the full picture of the daily routine of a Brazilian team, dealing with the media," Arnaldo Ribeiro, a football pundit for SporTV, tells Bleacher Report.

"He's getting a sense now of what is like playing for a big Brazilian club that haven't won any major trophy in a long time. The volatility is pretty intense. I think he has never experienced this before."

Throughout his whole career in Europe, Alves had, in total, 11 different managers; Sao Paulo have had four coaches this year alone.

Widely known for producing some of the best talents in the country, including the likes of David Neres, Casemiro, Eder Militao, Ederson Moraes and Lucas Moura, they've not won a single title since the Copa Sudamericana crown in 2011.

Hoping to bring back the triumphant days, like when they beat Liverpool in the Club World Cup final back in 2005, the six-time Brazilian champions made a bold move by going after Alves, offering him the highest wage in the country, R$1.5 million per month (around €350,000).

It's almost as much as newly promoted CSA pay their whole squad.

And yet, when the two teams met in September, CSA held Sao Paulo to a 1-1 draw at Morumbi, leading home fans to boo Alves and his team-mates.

As he passed through the mixed zone that day, he stood in front of the cameras to criticize the media for suggesting that he should play as a right-back—until then, he had been used just in midfield, where, in his own words, he can touch the ball more often and so be more helpful to his colleagues.

"I know how difficult it is to build something in Brazilian football due to the fact that you [journalists] are always around to destabilize. Therefore, we have to be very cautious every moment, otherwise, we will find ourselves in situations that don't benefit us," he said.

TOPSHOT - Brazil's national football team captain Dani Alves wearing the jersey of his new team Sao Paulo, poses for photographers during his official presentation, at Morumbi stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 6, 2019. (Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP
NELSON ALMEIDA/Getty Images

"Most of the media have never played football, so they just create discomfort inside the club, asking if I play as full-back or midfielder. I'm here to help Sao Paulo, my team.

"Before coming back to Brazil, I went through a brainwashing process realising that over here only the strong survive."

Two days later, though, Alves broke into a news bulletin from Globo to smilingly say that he wanted to make it up. A few days ago he again tried to flip the narrative by posting an impassioned "never give up" message on Instagram that finished with the hashtag #GoodCrazyMood.  

His return has been a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone so far.

"It was unimaginable at the time to think that he would leave PSG as a Copa America winner, Brazil's captain, the outstanding player of the tournament, and go straight to Sao Paulo. Very few people actually believed it was a real possibility," Marcelo Hazan, Globo Esporte reporter covering Sao Paulo, tells B/R.

"Normally, when players return from Europe, they're looking to retirement, but that's not Daniel's case. In a way, he has twisted this logic.

"He's a guy that, whenever he speaks, everyone stops to listen because he has interesting things to say, he stays away from cliches. It's been really intense and nice to mingle with such an extra class footballer who played with the biggest names of this generation. Overall, it's been a very rich experience for everybody."

In Brazil's domestic environment, where players sometimes do interviews three times or more in a week, Alves possibly still needs a little while to fully adapt.

"He has always been one of the most straightforward players when answering a question, but the thing is that we were used to seeing him do one, two interviews per year in Brazil. Now, he's speaking much more often", Ribeiro reveals.

"I think he is surprised by the reaction to the things he said. He has never felt, quote-unquote, 'so much pressure' like now. 

"Suddenly, he has become one of the main names in the Brazilian football featuring for a club that finds itself super pressured. His winning record will be of no use if he doesn't win a competition with Sao Paulo. He's currently facing this dilemma and learning how to live with that."

Despite being a devoted Sao Paulo follower his whole life, Alves' comeback to Brazil was mainly down to one reason: his childhood club was the only one willing to offer him a three-year deal and a chance to remain on the Brazil national team's radar.

He makes no secret about his desire to stay in contention for the 2022 World Cup, when he will be closing in on 40.

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 10: Daniel Alves of Brazil in action during the international friendly match between Brazil and Senegal at the Singapore National Stadium on October 10, 2019 in Singapore. (Photo by Allsport Co./Getty Images)
Allsport Co./Getty Images

Apart from that, it was also a chance to reunite with his two children, who had moved away to the United States following his Barcelona exit, but having failed to settle there, packed their things for Sao Paulo.

After being recently described by Tostao, Brazil's greatest football writer, as someone who "plays as if he saw the game from above," Alves still needs to recover his confidence to get back to his best form. In order to achieve that, moving away from controversies might need to become paramount.

He has not had a break since his arrival.

Sao Paulo's former boss Cuca allegedly left his position after a row with Alves. When Cuca wanted his marquee player to return to his more traditional right-back spot, Alves insisted on continuing in his midfield role. 

Frustrated with an apparent lack of support from the board on the issue, Cuca decided to step down as manager of the club.

The immediate response was to replace him with technical coordinator Vagner Mancini as interim coach. Although the club came to an agreement about that internally, the decision was never made official.

Mancini would quit before taking charge of a single game. In a leaked audio that would later emerge—and whose veracity was confirmed by the man himself—Mancini explained to a friend why he had resigned his contract.

"Do you know why I left? They had given me the job, but then, four hours after that, Daniel Alves went there asking them to name Fernando Diniz [as coach] instead. They called me back and told me they were having doubts. I replied to them, 'If you're in doubt, go after Diniz because I'm leaving,'" he said in the audio.

Diniz took charge of Sao Paulo the following day.

Sao Paulo's player Dani Alves gestures during the Brazilian Championship football match against Ceara at Morumbi stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 18, 2019. (Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Im
NELSON ALMEIDA/Getty Images

"So far, Daniel Alves had one great game but didn't really make a difference in the other ones," Luis Augusto Simon, a football columnist for UOL, tells B/R.

"[The Diniz appointment) was based on his opinion, although I'm not sure if he was asked to give it. It's interesting because he apparently didn't know Diniz that well a short while back. 

"I remember that, when he was at PSG, he praised him in an interview as one of the good things in Brazilian football but couldn't remember his name.

"Until now, [Alves] has been more effective in the media than playing football."

It felt like Alves wanted a coach who could help him unlock a more expansive game, emulating his Barcelona's days, but his whole experience back in Brazil might prove to be more difficult than he ever imagined.

As Ribeiro concludes: "It's not Sao Paulo who have to adapt to Daniel Alves, but the other way around. As soon as he understands this, the better for him."

     

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves

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