As one of the trio of senior players on Brazil‘s squad at the Olympic men’s football tournament at the 2020 Tokyo Games, Dani Alves is three wins from his 44th career title. Get past Egypt on Saturday, either South Korea or Mexico on Tuesday and then win Saturday’s final at Yokohama Stadium, and the 38-year-old right-back will have an Olympic gold medal to add to his collection.
Most of those titles, of course, came in a magical eight-year spell with Barcelona. Some came earlier with Sevilla, a few more later with Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. But however you count the trophies, he is not finished yet.
Some might think that after moving back to Brazil in 2019 his career is winding down, and that this Olympic tournament is an exotic adventure at the end of the line. But that is most definitely not the way that he sees it.
There is work to do at Sao Paulo. Alves helped them break a long drought by winning their local state championship earlier this year. Straight after the Olympics come the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, with Sao Paulo up against local rivals and reigning champions Palmeiras.
And still we are only getting started. Because the big title, the one that he wants most of all, is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
When Brazil won the 2019 Copa America on home soil, Daniel Alves was chosen as player of the tournament. Injuries have restricted his international appearances since then. But he still has a claim to be considered Brazil’s first choice at right-back.
There is a surprising lack of strength in the position at the moment. The recent first choice has been Danilo of Juventus — steady, but not exceptional. His back-up at the recent Copa America was Emerson Royal, whose profile will surely rise now that he is at Barcelona.
But Alves is in the hunt. And although he has so many titles to his name, the World Cup is unfinished business. He just missed out on going to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, behind Cafu and Maicon in the pecking order. His international debut came soon after the tournament, and began a dispute for the position with Maicon which, on the big occasion, Alves tended to lose.
At South Africa in 2010, Maicon was undisputed first-choice. Alves battled with Elano for a place in midfield, starting the competition on the bench but during the course of the tournament forcing his way in — though not in his favoured position.
Alves began the 2014 edition in Brazil at right-back but lost his place to Maicon for the decisive stages — which, as it turned out, may not have been a bad thing. Russia 2018 looked like being his moment. He would probably have captained the side. But he was injured playing for PSG in the Coupe de France final, and forced out of the tournament.
And so, bizarrely, a player with 118 international caps has never really had a World Cup to call his own. Qatar is the last chance. It is feasible because of the way that senior coach Tite sets up his side. Defeat to Belgium in the 2018 quarterfinals made him wary of attacking full-backs. He now wanted, he said, full-backs in the Manchester City mould rather than the Liverpool one. By this he meant that he was not looking for auxiliary wingers. He wanted his full-backs to be able to construct the play from deep, and occasionally appear further forward as an element of surprise.
This has subsequently been relaxed. Left-back Renan Lodi has been given licence to push forward, with the right-back expected to be more conservative. This suits Alves at this stage in his career. He no longer has the legs and the lungs for the constant ebb and flow up and down the flanks. Far better for him to sit deep, use his brain and his footballing ability to set the moves in motion and, from time to time, cut inside on the diagonal towards the opposing goal.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that Brazil’s Olympic team are not using him this way. Left-back Guilherme Arana does the up-and-back down his flank, seeking to supply a barrage of crosses. And coach Andre Jardine seems to expect something similar from Alves. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the fact that Jardine persists with left footers in the right wing position — either Antony of Ajax or Malcom of Zenit St Petersburg. Both are more likely to cut in onto their stronger foot — meaning that Alves is the best hope of a right-footed cross from that side of the field, and also making it harder for the full back to cut infield, since that space is often occupied.
It might work over this last, decisive week of the Olympic tournament. But the 2021 — and 2022 — version of Alves cannot be the same one who worked so wonderfully with Lionel Messi at Barcelona. If Alves is to play a part in Qatar, then a right-footed winger will have to keep the pitch wide on his side of the field, allowing the veteran full back to sit deep, survey his options and make his choices.
Whether the World Cup is title No. 44, 45, 46 or 47 for Alves, it is the one that really matters, the one to complete a dazzling career.