Ander Herrera provoked widespread derision when he claimed last month that Antonio Valencia “is the best right back in the world, maybe with Dani Alves." It was a laughable claim but the Manchester United midfielder got one thing right: Alves remains the standard by which all other right backs are measured – and rightly so. He has been at the top of his profession, the best in his position, for a decade. Few other defenders in the history of the game have enjoyed such a sustained period of success.
As Alves pointed out in a cheeky Instagram post in May he has won more major trophies at senior level than Pele (31, in total). One could argue that the 33-year-old was fortunate to have played for one of the most dominant club sides in football history but, in truth, luck’s got nothing to do with it.
Firstly, to suggest that Alves was somehow fortunate to have been a part of Barcelona’s unprecedented era of success would be as offensive as it would inaccurate. He wasn't just present — he was a protagonist, and right from the start, too. His arrival at Camp Nou coincided with that of Pep Guardiola. The Brazilian proved just as important under Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino and Luis Enrique.
What’s more, Alves had already enjoyed great success before pitching up in Catalunya, having played an integral role in Sevilla’s back-to-back Europa League triumphs in 2006 and 2007. Indeed, it was at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan where the outgoing Brazilian first came to prominence.
He had been signed as a virtual unknown in 2002, arriving from Bahia for just under 600,000 euros. Just four years later, he would be worth 60 times that amount after a succession of scintillating performances down Sevilla’s right flank.
He was a right back – but in name only. Joaquin Caparros wanted him to focus primarily on his defensive duties but Alves couldn’t see why he should curb his attacking instincts. “The fullback couldn’t go beyond halfway,” he told The Guardian of his time in Seville. “I said: ‘Why not?’
“Football is defend-attack, defend-attack or attack-defend, attack-defend. Football has no limits, no rules. [Caparros] changed my position [to midfielder] until he realized that, although I had offensive qualities, I could do both.”
And he could. To great effect. In four seasons with Sevilla, he established a reputation as the most swash-buckling fullback in world football — a more than worthy successor to his compatriot, the legendary Cafu.
He underlined his dynamic brilliance with a thrilling display against Barcelona in 2007, netting the winning goal in a 2-1 victory for the Rojiblancos, and when Pep Guardiola took charge of the Catalan club just over a year later, Alves was an almost immediate arrival. Even at a cost of €35.5 million ($40M), Guardiola knew the Juazeiro native would prove a bargain.
"His signing is very good news for the club," the new Barca boss said at Alves’ unveiling in 2008. "Along with Messi, if they work together, we will have the best right flank in the world." So it proved.
The South American duo may have been very different personalities – Messi is reserved and introverted, the complete opposite of the outgoing, outspoken Alves – but they clicked immediately. Barcelona reaped the benefits on the field. From 2008 to 2016 – a period in which the Catalans won six Liga titles, four Copas del Rey, four Supercopas de Espana, three Champions Leagues, three UEFA Super Cups and three FIFA Club World Cups – nobody provided Messi with more assists than Alves. Not Xavi. Not Andres Iniesta. Nobody.
Luis Enrique knew just how important Alves and his infectious enthusiasm were to his Barca side, on the field and in the locker room, so it came as no surprise that he was left bitterly frustrated by the club allowing to leave on a free transfer to Juventus at the end of last season.
“That was the first news that surprised me in the summer,” the Blaugrana coach said. “I wish the best for Dani Alves, a unique, special and different player, a 100 percent professional. He gave everything at the club and joined in everything. He was exemplary. I think Juventus have strengthened well.”
Barca, meanwhile, has struggled to fill the void. Aleix Vidal was viewed as the ideal replacement – even joining from Sevilla – but he has struggled to settle and it was Sergi Roberto who started the Blaugrana’s first two Liga outings of the new season.
Of course, nobody is surprised that replacing Alves has proven problematic. As Messi said last year, "Dani is the best fullback in the world. It's very difficult to find a player like him today."
It is even more difficult to find a character like him. This, after all, is a man who offered to act as a donor when his teammate and good friend Eric Abidal learned that he needed a liver transplant in 2012. The Frenchman said no, as he did not want to put his good friend's career in jeopardy too, so Alves instead took on Abidal's No. 6 jersey when the center back left for Monaco.
"The story with Dani goes beyond the jersey, though," Abidal said. "He knows it. Me too. We are friends and we talk about everything. He wanted to support me. And besides, he's a very good person."
Alves is not without his flaws. His sense of adventure often results in him getting caught too far upfield, while his propensity for speaking his mind has seen him make enemies, on the field, in the stands and in the press box. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo blanked him at least year’s Ballon d’Or ceremony, while the Spanish Sports Press Association (AEPD) once threatened him with legal action.
But love him or loathe him, there is no denying that he is the greatest fullback the game has seen since Cafu.
As Alves says himself, "When we retire, people will ask: 'Who was the greatest?'"
"And who gave him the passes?"
"My name is there — whether people like it or not."