During the long build up to the Tokyo Olympics, before the pandemic rescheduled the event, one of the most decorated footballers of the 21st century declared his interest in taking part.
He was already a veteran, would take up one of his country’s three allowed ‘over-age’ places and clock in at 12 years above the under-24 limit imposed on most participants in the men’s tournament. But he very much liked the idea of adding an Olympic medal to his clean sweep of other club and international titles.
In the end, 36-year-old Sergio Ramos was not considered for the Spain squad who on Saturday take on Brazil for the gold medal in Yokohama. But one great, ageless legend of the modern game will be involved in the final, hoping to join the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar among the celebrated modern players who count an Olympic title among their prized possessions.
He is Brazil’s Olympic captain Dani Alves, who made his professional debut 20 years ago. Since then, he has won league titles in Brazil, Spain, Italy and France. He has three Champions Leagues and two Uefa Cups to his name. He was named player of the tournament when he collected the second Copa America trophy of his career in 2019.
Alves is 38.
He is, strictly speaking, a defender, but has never been the sort of defender who limits his running in such a way as to carefully preserve his energies. Rather, Alves has spent a large part of his two decades at the top redefining the role of the modern right-back and fixing jet engines to it. At his peak, he covered so much ground, so fast and so effectively he could give the impression that the admired Barcelona teams he played for were competing with 12 men on the pitch.
When Messi, a Barcelona colleague for eight years, lists his greatest ever allies, Alves’s name features prominently: Forty-three of Messi’s club goals were served by Alves passes. He had been one of Pep Guardiola’s first signings as Barca head coach, bought from Sevilla for what, in 2008, looked like a hefty fee, some €30 million ($35.5m), for a defender. Guardiola knew that he was investing in no ordinary, conventional defender but somebody exceptionally dynamic, tireless and versatile.
An extrovert, too, who livens up a dressing-room, be it at Camp Nou, at Juventus, where he went on to win a Serie A title, or Paris Saint-Germain where he won Ligue 1 twice before returning to Brazil and Sao Paulo, from where he relaunched his 118-cap international career.
A gold medal on Saturday would resonate for many reasons. “Everybody knows my affection for Spain,” said Alves, of what he called his ideal final. “Because of my past I feel half Spanish, half Brazilian.”
That past means not only eight years at Barcelona, and six more with Sevilla, who signed him as a teenager, but reaches back to his landmark first trophy in the colours of Brazil. He lifted it at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi after buzzing here, there and everywhere through the final of the 2003 under-20 World Cup against the Spain of a young Andres Iniesta.
Those who were there will remember the effervescent, mop-haired Alves hitting the crossbar in the opening six minutes with an athletic overhead volley, and Alves curling in the corner from which Fernandinho headed in the only goal of the game with three minutes left.
In Yokohama, in the stadium where Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, the veteran version of Alves will be seeking out the likes of Everton’s Richarlison, who has five goals at the Games so far, with his precise passes. He will be imposing his experience on a Spain team that has, even with no Sergio Ramos, plenty of senior knowhow of its own.
Six of the Spaniards who reached the semi-final of the European championship last month are looking to make amends with an Olympic gold. The match-winner in the Games semi-final against Japan, Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio - who has two Champions League titles - should be restored to the starting XI, and at some point Alves will find himself directly up against Barcelona’s Pedri, in a true contest of different epochs.
Pedri is 18. He was not even born when Sevilla arranged the signing of an irrepressible full-back from Bahia, scarcely imagining that the player had two more decades of elite football in him or that, in his 39th year, Dani Alves would be on an Olympic podium.