IT MIGHT BE THE MOST WOEFULLY INADEQUATE business card in the world: DANI ALVES, RIGHT BACK. You might as well say, LEONARDO DA VINCI, DECORATOR. Right back, sure. But also: right midfielder, right winger, central midfielder, center forward, playmaker. Daniel Alves, the 28-year-old attacking defender for Barcelona and the Brazilian Seleção, makes killer passes and killer tackles in your penalty area and then, before you've blinked, back in his own. He's a footballing Sonic the Hedgehog.
"When Dani Alves runs up the pitch, he meets himself running back down it," says Jorge Valdano, the former World Cup--winning Argentina manager and current director general of Real Madrid. Through May 15 of this season, according to the statisticians at London-based Opta Sports, only one player in Spain's first division, La Liga, has touched the ball more times than Alves: his Barça teammate Xavi, who is an offensive midfielder. Since when is a right back supposed to be on the ball all the time?
Just watch Barcelona play, and you can see how important Alves is. For all the intricacies of Blaugrana football, for all its technique and close control, look how often the ball is played to Alves. "My game is looking for spaces," says Xavi, "but with these teammates, especially Dani, it's easy." The classic Barcelona pass is the diagonal to Alves bombing up the wing. Witness how often it is his run that unlocks the opposition's defenses.
Better still was to witness how often this occurred with Sevilla, Alves's first Spanish club after two seasons with Bahia in his native country. One of the weird things about the Sevilla side on which Alves played from 2003 to '08—the most successful side in club history, winning five trophies in 18 months during '06 and '07—was that by far its best player was its right back. Many Sevilla supporters will tell you that Alves was the best player in the team's history; others will tell you that he was the best player in the world, period, and would have been declared so if he hadn't been just a right back. Except that he was not just a right back. They may be biased, but they have a point.
It was as if Alves were attached to the rest of the team by a rope. It seemed that every move started, continued and ended with him. He would get the ball from the goalkeeper, play a one-two with the center back, dash up the pitch, play a one-two with the deep-lying midfielder, dash up the pitch a bit more, play a one-two with the attacking midfielder, run into the penalty area and finally roll the ball across for the center forward to score. One hundred yards, one player bouncing off all the rest, using them to pick apart the opposition, dragging them up the pitch and setting up goal after goal.
In 2006--07, Alves was involved in more plays than anyone else in Spain, according to the Spanish sports daily Marca. It was his third season on Sevilla's first team. He would finish the campaign with the third-best average player ranking in the league, according to the Spanish soccer magazine Don Balón, behind only Barça forward Lionel Messi and Recreativo de Huelva winger Santi Cazorla. In the previous two seasons he had been in the top 20. That means that for three successive seasons Alves ranked better than any Real Madrid player and, for example, better than Valencia (and now Barcelona) forward David Villa.
Remember that business card: DANI ALVES, RIGHT BACK. Yet in '05--06 only five other players in the Spanish league produced more assists than Alves did, according to Don Balón. In 2006--07 only two players did. And in 2007--08 only one player did. In the whole league.
Alves left Sevilla in the summer of 2008. The side that had kept improving despite the departures of other stars—Júlio Baptista, Sergio Ramos and José Antonio Reyes—has not been the same since. The Brazilian defender joined Barça, which had just finished the season empty-handed, 18 huge points behind Real Madrid in the standings. He was the Blaugrana's only signing. In his first season the team won the treble: La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. In his second season Barcelona won La Liga again. In four years Alves's two teams, Sevilla and Barcelona, had won La Liga twice, the Copa del Rey twice, the UEFA Cup twice, the Champions League and the Club World Cup. This season Alves is on course to add at least one more trophy. No one has been more successful at the club level.
It's not all down to Alves, of course, and when the question is asked, Can he play with the other stars in SI's XI for '11? the answer is that in many cases he already has. And he's adapted accordingly. "It's impossible for me to be the same player at Barcelona as I was at Sevilla," Alves said not long after joining the Blaugrana. It sounded pessimistic, but it needn't have. The Brazilian may be a little less central to Barcelona than he was to Sevilla—how could it be otherwise with Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta around him at the Camp Nou?—but he has been just as good. His transfer fee of $50 million might have seemed high; in fact it was a bargain.
It is Alves's mobility that liberates Messi to go inside, his speed that makes Barcelona's attack unpredictable, his late timed sprints that give Xavi an outlet to stretch defenses. "Alves and Messi think collectively; they complement each other," says Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. On a team that plays through the middle, Alves provides width—and chances well inside the penalty area. Hasta la cocina, they say in Spain: Barcelona goes into the other team's house all the way to the kitchen. Alves is usually the first to the sink, dashing in from the blind side, noticed too late by the defenders and then unstoppable because he is already on the run.