Dani Alves' fairytale start at Sao Paulo
It was always going to happen.
After spending more than a decade and a half in Europe, Dani Alves made his return to Brazilian football on Saturday -- and turned it into a triumph, scoring the only goal of the game in Sao Paulo's 1-0 win at home against Ceara.
A few months ago, this might have been seen as a has-been eeking out the end of his career in a crisis club. The injury that ruled Alves out of last year's World Cup appeared to have brought his days at the top level to an end. He had impressed at Sevilla, hit magnificent heights at Barcelona and proved his worth at Juventus. Then Paris Saint-Germain brought him in, mainly, it seemed, because he was seen as a stabilising influence on Neymar. And so, at the end of last season, when PSG let Alves go, it was an advance warning that the club had lost patience with their Brazilian star. And so if they no longer needed Neymar, they no longer needed Alves.
But Brazil did. Coach Tite still had a place for him. He would have been captain in last year's World Cup. He was the captain now. And he was not only necessary as a leader, but also as a player -- Tite had thought long and hard about the World Cup defeat to Belgium. Against a top level team, Brazil were too open. He would achieve balance by tweaking the role of the full-backs. He was not looking for auxiliary wingers, repeatedly charging up and down the flanks. Rather than the Liverpool model of the full-back, he was looking to Manchester City -- for players who can hold the defensive line, construct from deep and arrive occasionally in the attacking line as an element of surprise. It is a role that can be played by a veteran -- and all of this explains why there is still a place in the team for Alves while swashbuckling left-back Marcelo, five years younger, has been discarded.
And so Alves turned the Copa America into a giant billboard advertising his own continued value. He was chosen as the outstanding player of the tournament. He had the prize position in the shop window. He could have gone anywhere -- and it is this which has made his return to Brazil so important and dramatic. Much like Juan Sebastian Veron turning his back on Italian football and going home to Estudiantes more than a decade ago, Alves chose with his heart.
He is a Sao Paulo supporter. True, the connection is nothing like as close as that of Veron with Estudiantes. The father of Veron was a massive idol of the club, Veron grew up inside the club's culture and started his career there. And after his glorious second spell with Estudiantes, he has gone on to be the president.
Alves grew up in Brazil's North East, over a thousand miles from Sao Paulo -- much further, for example than the distance that separates London from Barcelona. But the glamour clubs of the South East, Rio and Sao Paulo, have always captured nationwide imagination in Brazil, and Alves is just the right age to have fallen under the spell of Sao Paulo's attractive and all conquering side of the early 1990s, coached by Tele Santana and captained by Rai.
An interesting and belated trend in South American football is for ex-players to be used in directorial positions, and this helps explain some of the recent imports. Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi joined Boca Juniors in Argentina, persuaded by his former teammate Nico Burdisso, who is now Boca's director of football. And Sao Paulo director Rai played a key role in the seduction of Alves.
Once held up as an example of a well run Brazilian club, Sao Paulo have recently fallen on hard times. Just over a decade ago they won the Brazilian title three times in a row, and beat Liverpool to become Club World champions in 2005. But they all seems a long time in the past. Internal divisions have taken their toll. The club were humiliatingly knocked out of this year's Copa Libertadores in the qualifying round -- some even saw them as candidates for relegation when the Brazilian league kicked off. Instead, with some interesting young players, they have done better than expected - and now hope to do even better.
Along with Alves, the club have also signed the Spain international Juanfran. He is a right-back -- which means that Alves is being pushed forward into an attacking midfield role. It is worth remembering that when Brazil were down to 10 men and hanging on against Peru in the closing stages of the Copa America final, Real Madrid's Eder Militao came off the bench to play at right-back, pushing the captain higher up the field. Defending has never been his speciality, and he will now be free to construct -- but right-back remains his Brazil position. He has few quality rivals, and is keen to make a bid to stay in the side all the way to the next World Cup, when he will be closing on 40.
For the time being, the relevance of 40 in his life is that it refers to the number of titles he has won. Sao Paulo fans will be hoping he can add to that number. His storming debut gave cause for hope. Alves lead the field in terms of on target shots and pass completion -- and, in a move set up by Juanfran, who also had a fine debut, he burst into the Ceara area to win the points for his side with a cute finish. Suddenly there is no talk of crisis at Sao Paulo, and relegation fears have vanished. Sunday's win leaves them five points off the top of the table with a game in hand. Some supporters might even be dreaming that title number 41 might come this year. Somewhere in his soul, Alves surely shares that dream.