In the latest The Players’ Tribune offering, Dani Alves discusses Barcelona, Brazil and the Champions League final…
Writing on The Players Tribune, Dani Alves discusses loving and leaving Barcelona, growing up in Brazil and the upcoming Champions League final…
I’m going to start with a secret. Actually, you may learn a few secrets in this story, because I feel like I am misunderstood by many people. But let’s start with the first one.
Three months ago, when Barcelona made their incredible comeback against Paris St.-Germain in the Champions League, I was watching every moment from my couch. You might think from reading the newspapers that I was hoping my old club would lose.
But when my brother Neymar scored that beautiful free kick? I jumped up from my couch and was screaming at the television.
And when Sergi Roberto performed a miracle in the 95th minute? Like every other Barca fan in the world, I was going absolutely crazy. Because the truth is that Barcelona is still in my blood.
Was I disrespected by the board of directors before I left the club last summer? Absolutely. That is simply how I feel, and you can never tell me any different. But you cannot play for a club for eight years, and achieve everything that we did, and not have that club in your heart forever. Managers, players and board members come and go. But Barca will never go away.
Before I went to Juventus, I made a final promise to the board at Barcelona. I said, “You’re going to miss me.”
I didn’t mean as a player. Barca have plenty of incredible players. What I meant was that they were going to miss my spirit. They were going to miss the care I had for the dressing room. They were going to miss the blood I spilled every time I put on the shirt.
When I had to play against Barca in the next round, it was a very weird feeling. Especially in the second leg at the Camp Nou, I felt like I was home again. Right before the match started, I went over to the Barca bench to say hello to my old friends, and they were saying, “Dani, come sit with us! We saved your seat!”
I was shaking everybody’s hand with my back to the referee. All of a sudden, I heard a whistle. I turned around and the referee had already started the match. I went sprinting back to the field, and I could hear my old manager, Luis Enrique, laughing his ass off.
It’s funny right? But that match was not a joke, especially not to me. People see me and they say, “Dani’s always joking. He’s always smiling. He’s not serious.”
Listen, I’ll tell you another secret. Before I go up against the best forwards in the world – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar – I study their strengths and weaknesses like an obsession, and then I plan how I am going to attack. My goal is to show the world that Dani Alves is on the same level.
Maybe they will dribble past me once or twice. Sure, okay. But I will attack them, too. I don’t want to be invisible. I want the stage. Even at 34 years old, after 34 trophies, I still feel I have to prove this every time.
But it goes even deeper than that. Right before every match, I have same the routine. I stand in front of a mirror for five minutes and I block out everything. Then a movie begins to play in my mind. It is the movie of my life…
In the first scene, I’m 10 years old. I’m sleeping on a concrete bed at my family’s tiny home in Juazeiro, Brazil. The mattress over the bed is as thick as your little finger. The house smells of wet soil, and it is still dark outside. It’s five in the morning, and the sun has not risen, but I have to go help my father on our farm before school.
My brother and I walk out into the field, and our father is already out there working. He’s got a big, heavy tank on his back, and he’s spraying the fruits and plants with chemicals to kill the bacteria.
We’re probably too young to handle the toxins, but we help him anyway. This is just our way to survive. For hours, I compete with my brother to see who can be the hardest worker. Because the one who our father decides has helped him the most gets the rights to our only bicycle.
If I don’t win the bicycle, I have to walk the 20 kilometres from the farm to my school. The walk back from school is even worse, because the pickup football games in our neighbourhood will start without me. So I run the 20 kilometres back and then just keep running right out onto the pitch.
But if I do win the bicycle? Then I can get the girls. I can pick up one of them on the road and offer them a ride to school. For 20 kilometres, I’m the man. So I work my ass off.
I look at my father as I leave for school, and he’s still got the big tank on his back. He’s got a full day in the field ahead of him, and then at night he’s got a little bar that he runs to make extra money. He was a hell of a footballer when he was young, but he didn’t have the money to make it to a bigger city so he could be seen by scouts. He wants to make sure that I have that opportunity, even if it kills him.
Now it’s Sunday, and we’re watching the football matches on our black-and-white TV. There’s steel wool wrapped around the antenna so we can pick up the signal from the city, far away. For us, this is the best day of the week. There’s a lot of joy in our house.
Now my father is driving me to town in his old car so I can try out in front of some scouts. The car is a stick shift, and it only has two gears – slow and slower. I can smell the smoke. My dad is a hustler. I have to be a hustler, too.
Now I’m 13, and I’m at this academy for young footballers in a bigger town, away from my family. There are 100 kids packed into a small dormitory. It’s kind of like a prison. The day before I left home, my father went into town and bought me a new football kit. He doubled my wardrobe, because I only had one kit to begin with.
After the first day of training, I hang the new kit on the line to dry. The next morning, it’s gone. Somebody stole it. That’s when I realise that this is not the farm anymore. This is the real world, and the reason they call it the real world is because s*** is real out here.
I go back to my room, and I’m starving. We train all day, and there’s not enough food at the camp. Somebody stole my clothes. I miss my family, and I’m definitely not the best player here. Out of 100, I’m maybe 51st in ability. So I make myself a promise.
I tell myself, “You are not going back to the farm until you make your father proud. You might be 51st in ability. But you are going to be No 1 or 2 in drive. You are going to be a killer. You are not going back home, no matter what.”.
Now I’m 18 years old, and I’m telling one of the only lies I’ve ever told in football. I’m playing for Bahia in the Brazilian league when a big scout comes up to me and says, “Sevilla are interested in signing you.”
I say, “Sevilla! Amazing.”
The scout says, “Do you know where that is?”
I say, “Of course I know where Sevilla is. Sev-iiiillaaaaa. I love it.”
But I have no idea where Sevilla is. It could be on the moon for all I know. But the way he says the name makes it sound important, so I lie. A few days later, I start asking around, and I find out that Sevilla plays against Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Portuguese, we have an expression for this kind of moment.
I said to myself, “Agora.” It’s like, Bang. Now. Let’s go.
Now I’m in Sevilla, and I’m so malnourished that the coaches and other players are looking at me like I must play for the youth team. I am in the middle of the hardest six months of my life. I don’t speak the language. The manager isn’t playing me, and it’s the first time I really think about going home.
But then, for some reason, I think about the new kit that my father bought me when I was 13. The one that got stolen. I think of him with the tank strapped to his back, spraying chemicals. And I decide that I’m going to stay and learn the language and try to make some friends, so that at least I can go back to Brazil with a new experience to share.
When the season begins, the manager instructs everyone, “At Sevilla, our defence does not go past the halfway line. Never.”
I play a few games, kicking the ball around, looking at that line. Just looking at it, like a dog who’s afraid to cross an invisible fence in his yard. Then, one game, for some reason, I just let go.
I have to be me. I say, “Agora.” And I just go. Attack, attack, attack.
It works like magic. After that, the manager says, “Okay, Dani. New plan. At Sevilla, you attack.” In just a few seasons, we go from being a relegation club to lifting the UEFA Cup twice.
My phone is ringing. It’s my agent. “Dani, Barcelona are interested in signing you.” I do not have to lie this time. I know where Barcelona is.
That is the movie that plays in my head when I stare in the mirror before every match. At the end, before I walk back to the dressing room, I always say the same thing to myself.
I came from nowhere. I am here now. It’s unreal, but I am here.
When I was 18, I moved across the ocean just for the opportunity to play for a club that played against Barcelona. So to have the honour of playing for Barca? It was incredible. I was a witness to true genius.
I remember during one training session, Messi was doing things with the ball at his feet that defied logic. Of course, that is what he did every day. Only this time, something was different.
Now, I need to remind you, this was an extremely intense training session. We were not messing around. Messi was dribbling through the defence and finishing like a killer.
And then as he’s running past me, I look down at his boots, and I’m thinking to myself, Is this a joke?
He comes running past again, and I think, No, it’s impossible. He comes running past again, and now I’m sure what I’m seeing. His damn boots were untied. Both of them.
I mean completely untied. This guy was playing against the best defenders in the world, just floating around the pitch, and he was acting like it’s a Sunday in the park. That was the moment when I knew that I was never going to play with someone like him ever again in my life.
And then, of course, there’s Pep Guardiola. He is a genius. I’ll say it again. A genius.
Pep would tell you exactly how everything was going to happen in a match before it even happened. For example, the game against Real Madrid in 2010, when we won 5-0? Pep told us before the match, “Today, you’re going to play like the football is a ball of fire. It never stays at your feet. Not even a half second. If you do that, there will be no time for them to pressure us. We will win easily.”
The sensation when we left every one of his pre-match talks was like we were already up 3-0. We were so empowered, so prepared, that it felt like we were already winning.
The funniest thing was if we came in at half-time and the game wasn’t going well. Pep would sit down and rub his forehead. You know how he rubs his head? You’ve seen it, right? Like he’s massaging his brain, searching for the genius to come to him.
He would do this right in front of us in the dressing room. Then, like magic, it would come to him. Bang!
“We will do this, this and this, and then this is how we will score.” Then he would jump up and start barking out instructions, drawing maths and figures on the board.
So we would go out, and we would do this, this and this. And that’s how we would score. It was crazy. Pep was the first coach in my life who showed me how to play without the ball. And he wouldn’t just demand that his players change their game, he would sit us down and show us why he wanted us to change with statistics and video.
Those Barca teams were pretty much unbeatable. We played by memory. We already knew what we were going to do. We didn’t have to think. That is why, to this day, Barca is in my heart.
That is why, when we beat Barcelona in the Champions League, I walked up to my brother Neymar, and I gave him a hug. He was crying, and a part of me felt like crying, too.
I can imagine people reading this and asking why I am sharing these secrets. Well, the truth is, I am 34 years old. I don’t know how much longer I will play. Maybe two or three years. And I feel as though people do not understand me, and my full story.
When I came to Juventus this season, it was like I was leaving home again. I did it when I was 13, going to the academy. I did it again at 18, going to Spain. And then I did it again at 33, going to Italy.
When I first arrived at Juve, it was like going to a completely new school. My whole life, I had loved to attack. And now I was coming to a place where they value defending above everything.
Once again, I was the dog in the yard. I was staring at the invisible fence. Should I go?
But I did not go. At the beginning of the season, I wanted to make sure that the Juve players understood that I respected their philosophy, and their history. Once I made sure that I had their respect, I tried to show them my strengths, too.
One day, I looked at the halfway line, and I said to myself, Should I go? … Bang. Agora.
Attack, attack, attack. (And, okay, maybe defend a bit, too, or Gianluigi Buffon will yell at me).
I sometimes think that life is a circle. See, I cannot get away from genius. At Barca, I had Messi. At Juve, I have Paulo Dybala. Genius follows me everywhere, I swear.
In training one day, I saw something in Dybala that I had seen before in Messi. It was not just the gift of pure talent. I have seen that many times in my life. It was the gift of pure talent combined with the will to conquer the world.
At Barca, we played by memory.
At Juve, it’s different. It’s our collective mentality that has has carried us to the Champions League final. When the whistle blows, we simply find a way to win no matter what. Winning is not just a goal at Juve, it’s like an obsession. There are no excuses.
This Saturday, I have a chance to win my 35th trophy in 34 years on earth. It is a special opportunity for me, and it has nothing to do with proving to the Barcelona board that they made a mistake in letting me go. I know that they will never admit that. That’s not the point.
Do you remember what I told you about the moment at the academy in Brazil when I told myself that I would never go back to the farm until I made my father proud?
Well, my father is not a very emotional man. I never knew when I had actually made him truly proud. For most of my career, he was back home in Brazil. But in 2015, he was there in Berlin to see me win the Champions League final for the very first time in person. I remember after the trophy celebrations on the field, Barca had a special party for the families of the players.
We got to hand over the trophy to the people who had helped us achieve our dreams. I remember when it was my turn I passed the trophy to my father, and we were both holding it, posing for a photo.
And he said something in Portuguese that is actually a dirty word, so I won’t translate it exactly. But he basically said, “My son is the man now.” And you know what? He was crying like a baby.
That was the greatest moment of my life.
On Saturday, I will have the chance to play for another Champions League trophy against a very familiar opponent. Like always, I will study Cristiano like an obsession. Like always, I will go to the mirror before the match and play the same movie in my mind.
The screen will go black, and I will remember.