Football is a sport with ever-changing protagonists and pieces, and every transfer window may involve the departure of familiar faces, sometimes loved by the fans, others mere references that would be remembered with nostalgia or, in the saddest cases for everyone involved, a long-awaited event that finally comes, with both parties eager to forget their time together ever happened.
However, some departures necessarily invoke the end of an era, and that is what happened to FC Barcelona in the summer of 2008. Their key player, Ronaldinho, left for AC Milan, leaving the number 10 shirt- with all that entailed- to a young Argentine player who had just turned 21.
Their coach, Frank Rijkaard, had been sacked following a disappointing season. Barcelona finished third place in La Liga and were eliminated from both UEFA Champions League and Copa del Rey in semi-finals.
Many things changed for the following season, and not just by the responsibility bestowed on Lionel Messi’s shoulders. Pep Guardiola, another Masía product whose only coaching experience had been a successful stint at Barça B, was now in charge of the first team.
Fellow Masía alumni were either being promoted as well (Sergio Busquets) or being recovered from other teams (Gerard Piqué). But that didn’t mean only homegrown players would be key in the golden era that was approaching the club.
From the six players that would be bought from other clubs, nobody would become as much of a main figure both in the defence as then 25-year-old Daniel Alves da Silva.
There have been complaints about how, despite being technically a right-back, Dani Alves wasn’t exactly a safety guarantee. However, hindsight and watching of his current games aren’t necessary to realize his speed and tenacity made up for any rare mistakes that could happen.
While he has taken players down sometimes, his main attributes are shown when he’s required to he recover balls and intercept passes. Indeed, his wonder, what made him Messi’s ideal partner, resided in his passing. He’d take back a ball, run with it, exchange passes and engineer a goal.
He wasn’t alone, though. Lots of praise has already been given to Xavi and Iniesta, and we wouldn’t make anything original if we tried to explain how key Messi was during this period.
But now that Messi’s properly in the picture, we can’t help but point out their chemistry on the field. We wouldn’t move too far from reality if we said that Dani could kick the ball behind him without looking and Lionel would be right there, getting it and finishing the play with a goal.
He was never really a goal scorer in his eight years at Barça, he managed to make 21 of these- but he was key in 43 of Messi’s goals. In fact, he gave him more assists than Xavi ever did (33) and Iniesta has done so far (32). With Suárez at 11, the only one who could top this record in the near future is Iniesta. However, his chances have diminished drastically since these golden years.
However, despite the numbers, importance and fan love, it’s very easy to see how Dani Alves wasn’t exactly revered as a flagship player during the Guardiola years nor the Vilanova-Martino interregnum, let alone the Luis Enrique era.
In the first age, the magnitude of Xavi and Iniesta as the hearts of tiki taka took over the general audience’s perception of main stars alongside Messi. Looking back, while the rarity of a successful big team based on youth academy products can’t be overlooked, it probably hurt his position, as he was one of the few non-Masía players Barça had at the time. How do you promote your homegrown team while hailing your acquired player?
Things changed when Guardiola left, setting up the chain of events, from the initially successful but tragically cut short Vilanova run to the disastrous Martino tenure, which proved that Barcelona couldn’t really function in autopilot.
In between that time, the team composition began to slowly change. As the midfield aged, the team’s flagship position was switched towards the forwards, with the arrivals and consolidations of Neymar and Luis Suárez.
However, as shown by the 2014-2015 season, this new Barça had managed to evolve into a team that could let go of the by then figured out tiki taka when it had to, leading to vertical attacks.
And even though the MSN were thriving, Alves was still there, pulling passes with Messi and now Neymar as well, denying other team’s forwards, either by pulling obstacles or taking the ball from them.
His relevance also seemed to grow as Barça no longer consisted of a large percentage of homegrown players (from goalkeepers Bravo and Ter Stegen to midfielder Rakitic, and of course two thirds of the MSN) and he kept on appearing on the FIFPro World XI, as he had for his entire time at the club, except the year 2014.
That being said, he was always like Busquets, the kind of player whose importance was only actually visible when he wasn’t there. There was also a drop in form he suffered in the 2013-2014 season, alongside the whole club.
However, when he did so, he had just turned thirty, arguably the point of middle age when playing football. With a 35-year-old Xavi leaving after the second treble, the board, led by Josep Maria Bartomeu, didn’t seem too eager in keeping these players around, regardless of signings like Mathieu.
He signed a two-year contract in June 2015, with the option of extending it another year. When renewal talk came, he asked for two. The board insisted on one. The relationship deteriorated and in 2016, eight years after his first arrival, where he’d helped Barca to 6 La Liga titles, four Copa del Rey’s, three Champions League’s, three Supercup’s, and three Club World Cups, and five times as a member of the best team of the year according to FIFA (once by France Football), he was released from his contract.
Life after Barcelona for Dani Alves
Now 33, it would’ve been an easy guess to think his next destination was in the Middle East, like Xavi, or in China, or perhaps the MLS. But that wasn’t his plan. He signed a two-year deal, with the possibility of an extra year with another big European club, in a league that, while not as shiny as it once had been, was still considered among the big four. If no further extensions happened, he’d be 36 when leaving Juventus.
Massimiliano Allegri was to begin his third season in charge of the club. The team had already showed signs of recovery from their participation in the 2015 UEFA Champions League final, regardless of the eventual result of 3-1 in Barça’s favour.
What was needed, however, was to establish this return to form as permanent. Having won two of five consecutive Serie A titles and two consecutive Coppa Italia trophies, as well as a Supercoppa, Allegri had shown in the domestic level that Juve was back as a powerhouse.
The only question left was the international level. After losing to Barça, Vidal left the club for Bayern, while Tevez decided to go back home to Boca. Even with the arrivals of Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, the team was quickly ousted from the UCL in the round of 16.
As a result, Morata returned to Real Madrid, and while two months would have to go by until Pogba left for Manchester United, tensions and rumours would only grow steadily from there onwards.
The spark Dani had, however, was his precedence from a different league, one Serie A would seem more likely to lose players to. His objectives seemed to align well with those of the Vecchia Signora, even if people weren’t sure at the moment what to expect.
He wasn’t given a starting position right away. In fact, it would seem crazy to suddenly bench someone like Andrea Barzagli, no matter what credentials Dani carried with him.
However, he was still there, showing up, and while his adjustment wasn’t as dramatic as other cases, it did take sometime (I remember my commentator joking in an early match, after a pass went outside the pitch, how “he thought he was still playing with Messi”).
Things would be seemingly halted, though, when his left fibula was broken in November, when playing against Genoa. With Pjaca and Dybala injured as well, Juventus seemed to complicate its brilliant early run. But the recovery was as swift as was Dybala’s regardless of the ten year difference between la Joya and him, an experienced right-back… or rather wing-back.
As stated above, Barzagli had positioned himself as the right piece of the defensive BBC, which with Buffon’s command had been steadily giving forwards a run for their money (as Paulo himself would say, one of the happiest parts of joining Juventus was that after suffering them twice per season for the past three years, he now had them on his side).
Stephan Lichtsteiner also had to be taken into consideration, given all his years serving the club. Meaning Dani would be made to fight for his position, as both had the capacity of switching to wing-back if the situation required it. Indeed, this became a key factor once his creativity met that of another forward, who also happened to be Argentine and in his early twenties when meeting.
The first Higuaín goal in the first match (pardon redundancy) against Mónaco should testify that. A pass from Dybala in the air, then pulling passes with Higuaín until he scored. The following goal was even clearer, as it was them, Alves and Dybala, who engineered the advantage that would be settled the next week at Juventus Stadium.
If Barça fans hadn’t felt like tearing Bartomeu’s throat off after seeing Dani being a key player in their own elimination, they certainly felt that now. He was part of the Buffon-initiated counterattack that led to Mandzukic’s goal. And then, of course, came his time to shine. Following a forced error by Subasic, Dani aimed and shot. The rest is history. He will be facing his former classic rival on 3rd June in the Champions League final.
There is no way of knowing what the future holds. So far, Agnelli doesn’t seem bothered with Dani’s playful attitude, which won him so many frowns back in Catalonia.
However, that helped cement his position in the fans’ hearts, now in another club. At the time of writing, it can’t really be known whether he will become the first player to win three trebles. What I hope for is that, no matter how it ends, he will continue to shine brightly.
Age will always be a factor to be taken into consideration, as Xavi and Pirlo showed and lately newly 33-year-old Iniesta seems to be showing. But every so often, a player will defy those conventions, and demonstrate decisions pertaining contracts should focus more on what happens on the field and less on cold, statistical numbers. Gianluigi Buffon has been proving that in Juventus. Now, Dani Alves is confirming it. Whether Bartomeu regrets his choices or not.