Barcelona may boast all three FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010 finalists in Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but there can be no doubting the vital attacking outlet provided to this magical trio and the team as a whole by the speed and lung power of Dani Alves.
An integral cog in coach Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled Barça machine, the right-back spoke to FIFA.com about Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final against Manchester United at Wembley, his impressive recent form, taking on Ryan Giggs and earning a starting spot with Brazil.
FIFA.com: Dani, this season has proved once more that you remain a highly influential attacking option for this star-studded Barcelona side. Do you consider yourself a crucial part of this great team?
Dani Alves: (Laughs) Well, I think crucial is going a bit far but, yes, I do believe that I’m an important part of our playing system. It’s clearly hard for anyone to stand out in a squad that has so many star names, which is why I’m so happy to have that opportunity. I think it’s vital for players to feel that they are important. It really does you good.
After joining an already hugely talented side in July 2008, how hard was it to settle in and cement a starting spot?
To be honest it was very easy, I felt right at home. I took a gamble, because I knew that the club wasn’t going through a particularly good period. They were a team that had reached the top but hadn’t been able to stay there. That meant changes needed to be made, and being part of that process really motivated me. I thought it was an excellent opportunity to join a team that was being rebuilt, because I knew that I might have the chance to go down in club history - by being part of a great turnaround.
How important was Pep Guardiola in helping you settle so quickly?
Guardiola is a sensational guy. When he was a player he already behaved like a coach out on the pitch: he used to boss the team. He’s a very reasonable man, he knows the players well and knows exactly what they need. We know that he’s always on our side. Soon after I joined we had a conversation that had a big impact on me. He called me over and said: ‘I don’t want you to change the way you play’. And of course he mentioned one or two things that I could work on, but he also told me ‘not to worry. Keep playing the way you’ve always played, because that’s why we signed you.’ That kind of thing gives a player a real boost. And even now, thanks in large part to him, I know that I still keep getting better.
Given that you often appear to be operating more as a right-winger than a right-back, how do you and Guardiola decide how much freedom you’ll have to push forward?
It always depends on the game. In the matches against Real Madrid, for example, who set themselves up to hit us on the break and looked to particularly exploit their left flank, of course the situation meant I couldn’t attack as much. What has brought us so much success is precisely that: our ability as a team to adapt to our opponents’ approach. One of the key factors in Guardiola’s work at the Barcelona helm is being able to make things simpler. Simplifying the game is something that we really work on every day in training.
For a team that loses so few games, which type of opponents cause you the most problems?
I think those teams that put everyone behind the ball make life most difficult for us. Whenever we know a team’s going to totally shut up shop against us, we study them carefully to see if we can find another way to get our game going. But that’s always the most difficult challenge: opponents that are only interested in closing down any spaces.
How do you expect next Saturday’s match with Manchester United to pan out?
I imagine that both sides will play a very open game, because they’re both teams that like to play football – that try and create chances and attack from the off. I’m sure it’s going to be a great spectacle because, at the end of the day, that’s what you expect from a meeting of Europe’s two best teams.
Do you prepare for a game differently when you know you’ll be coming up against a direct opponent as influential as United’s Ryan Giggs?
Our coaching staff study our upcoming opponents in-depth, and of course when I take the field I already know about the characteristics of the player I’m most likely to cross paths with. And of course when it’s a great player like Giggs, you have to be twice as attentive. But my philosophy, which I think you might have guessed, is that attack is the best form of defence! (Laughs)
There has come a point where people not only expect Barcelona to win, but to put on a show as well. With the possibility of defeat seemingly not even taken into account, does that not pile the pressure on the side?
Losing is always painful, even more so when a team’s grown used to good results. But we’re mature enough to know that we’re up against opponents of the highest quality, the best teams on the planet. What matters is that we don’t change the way we approach the game: we have our playing philosophy and we’ll stick to that come what may.
Of the remarkably few defeats the team has suffered in recent times, which was the most painful?
I think the worst was the one against Inter Milan, in the semi-finals of last season’s Champions League. But we know that when we lose it’s our fault and conversely, when we win it’s down to us too. It’s good to be aware of that. And you always get fresh opportunities in football, such as us getting the chance to reach another [Champions League] final and even managing to get one over the same coach that knocked us out last season. (Laughs)
You’re one of the few regulars from Dunga’s Seleção to have stayed involved right from the start of new coach Mano Menezes’ reign. Has that boosted your confidence?
No doubt about it. I’m tremendously proud to know that both Dunga and Mano rate me as a player. Now, fortunately, I’ve been getting a run of games in the starting XI. I really enjoyed my time under Dunga but that was something which was lacking. The thing is, when it comes to A Seleção, what role you play doesn’t matter: I just want to help, to be involved and to contribute to the team’s success.
Having already tasted life at a FIFA World Cup™, at South Africa 2010, are you already looking forward to Brazil 2014?
Very much so. The World Cup is totally different from anything else in football, and I can’t even imagine what one will be like in front of our own fans, our people. I hope to be there and I think we need to be really aware of what a privilege it would be to play in a World Cup on home soil. On the one hand of course the pressure will be enormous, but on the other it’ll be joyous beyond measure.