The ball floated and skittered along the pitch, a playing surface that was deliberately dry and unkempt in the hope of harrying the unreasonable guests.
In the moment that the ball slowed in a bit of cabbage patch la pausa, a streak came hurtling in to bend a boot round the ball just before it crossed the end line, lacing in a perfect cross to a striker who was accustomed to No. 6 performing the extraordinary, who made the run that few other attackers in the game would make.
As the reports emerge of Dani Alves’ possible departure to Juventus, we should review what we know about the situation: nothing. Nothing at all. Why? Because the summer transfer window is people who don’t know anything, riling up people who know even less. “Juventus sources say,” “FC Barcelona sources deny.”
Club sources have allegedly confirmed that Alves has a clause in his contract that allows him to leave on a free, if activated before a certain date. Allegedly. Allegedly, Adriano and Douglas were overheard saying to Alves, “See you next year.” Allegedly. Allegedly, Mascherano will be leaving for Juventus with Alves, as he feels unappreciated by anyone except his teammates and coaches. Allegedly.
But here is what else we know: Dani Alves is life. As we roll through our existences, secure in precious little except that at some point in our futures existence will end, we hesitate, we pause, we don’t do things that we want to do, or halfass things we do that we said we would do, and not halfass. That isn’t living life, that’s playing at it. Dani Alves is the life that we want, the unreserved, full-bore zeal that makes everyone say, “Y’all!”
A haircut reminiscent of a pile of dog poo? Sure. Velvet pants with a red fedora? Okay. A video that mimics his girlfriend (now wife) telling him after a difficult match that it’s just a game? You betcha. Financing hepatitis treatments, spider crawling along a bus ceiling, mimicry and always, always laughter.
Dani Alves lives life as he plays football, like it’s all a game. We always speak of those people who who rocket along with an enviable joie de vivre, in almost awed tones. We wish we could do that, embody “Wheeee!” It’s not only admirable, but it allows us all to lay on wherever existence is going to end for us, without a shard of regret.
Dani Alves never stops on the football pitch. He runs, he harries, he dives, he exaggerates, he makes great plays and stupid plays, he crosses balls to the fans in the cheap seats, then he puts one right on someone’s boot or noggin. Life is successes and glorious failures, but you can’t have one without the other. Dani Alves understands that, so he doesn’t give two shits when people declare him over, make jokes about his crosses going to the moon, boot-assisted rockets to nowhere. He doesn’t care because he’s too busy living life, skipping and capering about with a joy that is infectious.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen is dour, the only serious face when the world is cracking up. In a recent training session, at the goad of Dani Alves, Ter Stegen was … well … silly. Goofy face, oddball gesture. There was a movie, released in the 1970s, called “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?” The premise was that there was this bird that had a disease, and the symptoms were that you would be infected with happiness. Alves is that bird, and it’s glorious.
You don’t have to be a fan of him to understand what he does for the game, how he lives it, plays it and makes it a metaphor for life, successes and failures, mercurial moments strung together in sequences that make us laugh, shrug, cry and exult. He never stops on the pitch, and he never stops living life. Dani Alves is a beautiful human being, whatever anyone thinks about his footballing talents and the state of his career.
Sid Lowe of the Guardian called him a footballing Sonic the Hedgehog, but really, we can extend that definition past football. Dani Alves is life, plain and simple. And the saddest thing about life is that it has to end.
Alves has been gone before. A couple of years ago, he was “gone” to Paris St.-Germain, before calling an exultant presser to do nothing more than be Dani Alves. At the recent Camp Nou celebration, a player who always wears his heart on his sleeve went bare-armed. He talked about Xavi and what the No. 6 meant to him, he issued a valedictory for the Barça teams that he graced, he laughed and cried, and everyone thought it was lovely. The club’s official site labeled the video of his speech “a final message.”
But nobody thought that it might mean farewell, because who wants life to end? Rumors are rumors, until they are fact. Alves might be pranking us all, might be laughing in that shark-faced, irrepressible way that makes the joke on you, but you don’t mind a bit. He might be bounding up and down the right side of the pitch for Barça next season, being life, the lively embodiment of doing everything to the fullest.
What if he isn’t? What if the rumors are true, and he is gone to Juventus on the rumored three-year contract that would provide not only a big payday, but the security that he wasn’t going to get from the club with which he became part of history, of glory and triumph. That’s okay, because it has to be. No player should be where he doesn’t want to be, and players come and go, even capricious beings who bound through life like a Greek god of mirth.
The world in which Alves lives has changed, even as his influence was outsized in the phenomenal closing run of Barça. The key goals in the Copa final came from the left. The attack has shifted to the left, with Neymar and Alba. Now that Messi has slid back, the magical back-and-forths of he and Alves are greatly diminished as Alves reverts to something more of a “normal” right back, rather than Harpo Marx to Messi’s Groucho, a two-headed fun machine.
As he bounds up and back, it’s clear that the step is gone. The player that used to body up on attackers, possessed of the quickness that enabled him to control, outthink and dispossess, now plays off opponents, who are allowed to receive passes. Alves evaluates and makes plays, or not. His game has changed along with the demands of his position. Alves is glorious, but the question is, for those churlish enough to ask it, is he still essential?
Football moves on, players move on. Sergi Roberto will probably become the right back. He won’t be Alves in the sense that he won’t be life. The team will lose something important to its nature, that being that laughs and reminds everyone that it’s a game, that he and his teammates are millionaires scampering about on a golf course, clad in shorts and doing something they would do for free.
The joy of Alves is such that even as his quality is still inarguable, the game moving on means that the joyless external forces that rip at life, rip at Barça’s life. This summer, the team will have to dump some salaries. Some of us speculated previously that Alves and Mascherano would be on that short list, bodies made expendable by the maturation process of a team. If Alves was life, Mascherano was soul, the grit that abrades opponent opportunity, that comes steaming in when Alba is caught up the pitch and Pique is out of position, hoofing a ball away or making a last-ditch tackle.
Mascherano is fire. But like Alves, he is a potential victim of a team growing up. Pique has assumed a leadership role on the defense, and in many ways Jefecito can move on, knowing that his defense is in good hands. Maybe. Rumors are that he is off to Juventus, that personal terms have been agreed and now the clubs must haggle out the appropriate weight of a pound of flesh.
So many say that Mascherano isn’t a CB, and it’s true. He’s no more a CB than Carles Puyol was. He’s a wannabe superhero, like Puyol, with a cape and flashy nickname such as The Bullet. He puts out fires, comes to the rescue time and time again, greeted by silence until he errs, when we are reminded once again by his many detractors that he isn’t a CB. He isn’t a CB just as Alves isn’t an RB.
Both are players whose roles adapted to be part of a team that adapted football. High lines, charging forward, centerbacks lacing in passes from just outside the opposition box, right backs that fly about like wingers. The perception of Alves and Mascherano by too many is the consequence of thinking about football in the droll traditional way, of bending perception of an unconventional team to suit preconceived notions.
“Thiago Silva would have been in better position.” Maybe. But probably not, because Silva is a CB. Mascherano is a Barça CB. There is a difference, and it is a significant one.
Yet, those two players, Alves and Mascherano, life and fire, might be expendable because after winning a treble and then a double, the team has to start thinking about the future, about retooling in a way that allows the success to continue, without a pair of players who are 31 and 33 years old. Football, like time, moves on, and it takes — talent, pace, quickness, ability to respond physically to a tactical mind that is still sharp. Plays made easily become last-ditch challenges or cards. Second by second, we are no longer what we were. Life doesn’t slip away in big chunks, it slips away in wasted seconds, in hesitation, wishes and retrospect.
Barça has a pair of players, both the subject of rumor, who are not at all interested in hesitation, wishes and retrospect. One tore his anus making a play, the other runs as fast in the 90th minute as he does in the first. Both are irreplaceable but must, eventually, be replaced, because football is indeed life. And in ways that are often unspeakably sad, life must go on.