Though Portugal and Brazil consider themselves países irmãos (brother countries), with historical links that indelibly bond the two nations, few can feel the connection as keenly as Washington Alves. Born in Barao de Cocais, near Belo Horizonte, in 1947, the former Flamengo defender also played in Portugal and, come the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, his son Bruno Alves looks well-placed to turn out for A Selecção das Quinas.
Lincoln, Washington, Julio Cesar, Geraldo and Wilson. Of the nine children that Niza Alves brought into the world in Minas Gerais, five would be given presidential names and become professional footballers. The next chapters in this remarkable story, with a tragedy in the middle, are played out in Portugal.
The oldest, Lincoln, was a giant of a man, measuring in at 6’8. Having started out as a centre-forward, he ended up playing in every position on the pitch. Washington, for his part, was not as tall as his brother but remained a fearsome physical presence, as he told FIFA.com.
“In Brazil I was considered a violent player, who didn’t have much football ability,” he said with a grin. “Compared to the other players in my family, who were all technically excellent, I was more of the fully committed type. I took no prisoners. It was my job to stop the opposition.”
After leaving Flamengo, Washington headed for Portugal where he played for Espinho, Varzim, Rio Ave, Vitoria de Guimaraes and Lusitania de Lourosa.
Like father like son
He settled in Portugal and today lives in Povoa de Varzim, where he had three children who, unsurprisingly, followed the family tradition. Geraldo, 33-years-old, is a centre-back for Romanian outfit Petrolul, Bruno, 32, plays in the same position for Fenerbahce and Julio Alves, 22, is a midfielder for Varzim who played for Portugal at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011.
The next player to step onto the world stage, for a second time, will be Bruno. Having played at South Africa 2010, the central defender is almost certain to be in Paulo Bento’s starting XI for the Lusitanians at Brazil 2014. Watching your son playing in the world’s greatest sporting event is a special moment for any father, but even more so for Washington.
“I’m really looking forward to it. Brazil was the right choice to host the tournament. It’s a young and rapidly changing country, and everyone knows the passion the people have for football there. Bruno has every chance of shining in Brazil. He hates losing and never stops fighting. He had no choice, because I was his coach at youth level!” added the laughing Washington, before answering a tricky question. Who is he rooting for at Brazil 2014?
“I’m going to support the country my son plays for. If Bruno is called up, I’ll be cheering first for Portugal. Obviously I am still Brazilian, but if the Final is Portugal-Brazil I’ll be a happy man. I’ll root for my son, but I can’t lose,” said the good-humoured former centre-back.
Talking about the showpiece occasion on 13 July may sound over-optimistic, but Washington Alves has seen enough to believe that the host nation and Portugal have a real chance of making it to the Maracana Final.
“It’s a dream that can come true. I believe in the team that the Portuguese coach has put together. It’s a cohesive unit, with no weak points. And the same goes for Brazil. I’m very impressed with the way Scolari prepares his squad, fostering a spirit of togetherness and companionship.”
Genetics or environment
With a family of so many quality footballers, it is natural to ask where this gift for the beautiful game comes from. “I’ve been asked if football in is our genes or if it’s the result of the environment. I could be talking rubbish, but in my opinion the ability to play football comes from one’s surroundings.
"I always lived in a place where anything remotely spherical ended up being used as a ball," he explained. "An orange, an avocado stone, a sock rolled up, anything would do. And we all became footballers.”
Washington enjoys reminiscing about the past, especially his glory days at Flamengo when his mission was to stop stars like Pele, Garrincha and many more: “You could only halt Pele and Garrincha by fouling them, couldn’t you? They were impossible to stop.”
One particularly painful memory also sticks out, however. It was Washington who brought his younger brother Geraldo to Flamengo, with the youngster considered a rising star of Brazilian football.
“I took him to Flamengo precisely at the time a certain Zico came along, a future global superstar. Geraldo was considered one of the best players at the time by the press, along with Gerson, Rivelino and Cerezo. He showed he was at the same level and was even called up to the Seleção. Then it happened.”
Washington breaks off, understandably, rather than mention the tragedy that beset the Alves family in 1976. During a routine operation on his tonsils, Geraldo suffered anaphylaxis caused by the anaesthetic and died, aged just 22. The former centre-back glanced with sadness at a photo he has of his brother wearing the Flamengo shirt, alongside the pair’s father.
This story of different generations uniting two countries would not be complete without a connection to the present and the upcoming World Cup. And in the battle-hardened shape of Bruno Alves, there is little danger of not doing justice to the family name.