x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Middle East is full of promise for Alves

The Brazilian shot to fame in the UAE six years ago and won his first cap for Brazil in the region.

Daniel Alves, left, challenges Atlante's Daniel Arreola during the Fifa Club World Cup semi-final.
Daniel Alves, left, challenges Atlante's Daniel Arreola during the Fifa Club World Cup semi-final.

ABU DHABI // Tonight marks precisely six years since dynamic full-back Daniel Alves last appeared in the UAE to compete in the final of a Fifa-affiliated tournament. On that evening, the Brazilian was representing his country at the 2003 World Youth Championships where their Under-20 team faced Spain - a side built around the nimble feet and creative guile of midfielder Andres Iniesta.

Brazil won the match 1-0, courtesy of a late Fernandinho header, but it was Alves who collected the plaudits. The diminutive right-back's man-of-the-match-winning performance saw him smash the crossbar with an overhead kick, claim an assist from the corner that led to the goal and generally run Spain's defence ragged. Tonight he returns to Zayed Sports City where Barcelona meet Estudiantes de La Plata in the final of the Club World Cup. The 26-year-old is hoping to end another Middle East excursion on a high.

"This region is special for me. Every time I come here I've had good things happen," says Alves who made his first appearance for Brazil in the Middle East in a 4-0 friendly win over Kuwait club side Al-Kuwait Kaifan. "From my national team debut to the World Youth Championships, I've always managed to achieve good results and I hope that [tonight's] game can produce a similarly positive outcome."

Alves shone in Barcelona's 3-1 win over Atlante in the Club World Cup semi-final on Wednesday and was given a warm reception by more than 40,000 fervent supporters. Having lived in the north-east Brazilian state of Bahia for 19 years, the father of one is no stranger to loco Latin American football fans, but even he was surprised by the enthusiasm shown in the Emirates. "It's interesting because of the culture; being different from us Brazilians. I didn't expect that they would love football this much, but they do.

"They love football as much as we do. They are crazy about it," says Alves, who has taken time out from training this week to meet fans as part of organised trips by UAE-based company, Boqin Tours. "It's a pleasant surprise for us when we play here and experience how everyone feels for the game." During Estudiantes' semi-final victory over Pohang Steelers on Tuesday, visitors to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium caught a glimpse of how the beautiful game is followed in the football-obsessed continent of South America. Around 17,000 Argentine fans - complete with flags and banners, horns and drums - turned out to cheer on Los Pincharratas. One fan from La Plata had sold his car to fund his flight to the UAE.

"This is what football does; teams such as Barcelona and an event such as the Club World Cup, ultimately, attract fans from all over the world," says Alves, before revealing the opportunity to beat a team from Brazil's neighbouring nemeses Argentina provides an additional reason to succeed. "There is always an extra motivation between us," adds the former Sevilla defender, laughing loudly. "The rivalry comes from a long time ago, so when we play against Argentine teams, like we will [tonight], there is always an added incentive."

Alves and his Barcelona teammates are unlikely need any encouragement to fight for the win this evening: the Spanish side stand on the brink of making history. Victory would see Pep Guardiola's side finish 2009 with an extraordinary six titles, one for every competition they entered this year: La Primera Liga, the Spanish and European Super cups, the Copa del Rey, and, most importantly, the European Champions League.

The Catalan club's tenacious No 3 missed the final against Manchester United through suspension - a day he describes as "one of both the saddest and happiest days of my life" - but says his absence only serves to make him even more determined to play his part in history tonight. "I am really looking forward to the game. We have won a lot this year, but we are still missing this cup," he says. "Confidence is at its maximum in all the players because we know we have a great team. I am convinced we will win."

If, as is being widely predicted, Barca achieve their unprecedented objective, the question will no longer be 'Are this Barcelona side the best team in the world?', but rather 'How can this Barcelona club possibly improve?' Alves has the answer. "I like to use Roger Federer as an example," he explains. "For me, he is one of the greatest players in tennis, yet he was that upset at not being able to win the Australian Open against Rafa Nadal that he cried.

"When a person is born to win, they will never like to lose because winning once is never enough. You have to keep winning. It is the same with Barcelona. We've been able to win many titles, but it only serves to make us strive for more." psantos@thenational.ae gmeenaghan@thenational.ae