Sunday 14 August 2016, 15:38

Brazil’s Alves making heads roll

The one thing you did not want to be giving Andressa Alves when she was around the age of seven was dolls. No matter that she was a nice little girl from Sao Paulo, or that you might think that a girl of that age should be playing with them. The fact is that Andressa didn’t want to play with dolls and she didn’t want to dress them either. All she wanted to do was decapitate them. The youngster, who grew up to become Brazil’s star performer in their quarter-final win at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, would pull their heads off without a moment’s thought.

“The ball. I was always with a ball when I was a kid. I never wanted anything else: just a ball,” she told following her superb display against Australia. In making her galloping runs down the left or conjuring up magical assists, she no longer uses the heads of the poor little dolls that were given to her in her youth. That was before, when she wasn’t in the street playing with her friends.

“I was the only girl. The boys liked me because I was good. They always picked me first,” she said with a laugh, one she is barely able to summon up because of the mental and nervous energy she expended against the Australians. Overjoyed nevertheless, she now has a semi-final against Sweden to look forward to on Tuesday at the Maracana, a stadium where she has never played before.

“I’ve never even dreamed about it. I never thought I could play at the Maracana,” she said, wide-eyed at the prospect. “It’s going to be an amazing moment and I don’t think I’ll be able to put it into words. The Maracana is the symbol of Brazilian football. Zico, Ronaldo, everybody... I’ve got to be there to see what it’s like.”

Alves knows she needs to keep a cool head: “We have to. Sweden’s going to be a very tough match. It doesn’t matter that we beat them 5-1 in the first phase. They played really well against USA and they’ll play really well against us.”

The most striking thing about Brazil’s progress in the competition so far has been their ability to deal with the mental pressure of performing in front of thousands of Brazilian fans and playing as if there were nothing to it.

As far as Alves and her team-mates are concerned, they are feeling anything but under pressure: “We’ve got things clear in our heads. Why? Because the fans and the country are motivating us so much. We’re working hard because the fans are infusing us with all this energy. We’ve got a lot of people behind us and that makes all the difference. I’ve never played in front of so many people.”

Taking a deep breath, as if to collect her thoughts, she added: “It gives me goosebumps. It’s very exciting for me. The guys always get to play in front of 50 or 60,000 people, but we don’t. Here, we’re getting those crowds everywhere. And now we’ve got the Maracana, where there’s going to be even more.”

Full of belief The match in Belo Horizonte against Australia showed how mentally strong this Brazil side is. Despite creating chance after chance, many of them engineered by Alves herself, Brazil were thwarted time and again by Lidya Williams in the Matildas' goal, first in normal time and then in extra-time, the ooohs and ahhhs of the crowd becoming a familiar sound as the night progressed. Alves was not concerned, however: “We couldn’t get a goal but it was going to work out anyway. We knew we’d end up winning. I never had any doubts, Not even when Marta missed her penalty.”

Marta is the player Alves dreamed of being when she played with her little friends in the street. When she first came to share a dressing room with her and the likes of Cristiane and Formiga – all of them her idols – she could barely believe it.

“It was a shock when I met them,” explained Alves, who was only 20 at the time. “I couldn’t believe it. I just looked at them. I’d whisper, ‘Marta, Cristiane...’ and look at them as if I were seeing ghosts or something. I couldn’t get my head round it, and now the three of us are friends, and living together. I never thought I could be here with them playing in the best tournament in the world.”

Watch Alves play and it is easy see why she is here, why she went to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, and why she has just signed for Barcelona after a year in Montpellier. Long of stride, she has an innate ability to read the game and the space around her, a cultured left foot and bags of character. Yet while she might be a graceful player to watch, the rolled-down socks, tucked into her shinpads, leave little doubt that this is someone who has learned her trade on the rough pitches that are a feature of the South American game at grassroots level.

“Having Andressa in a tournament with 18-player squads is like having one with 22 players,” said her coach Vadao, voicing his praise. She virtually proved that point by playing at left back, in midfield, in the centre of attack and, in these latest games, as a withdrawn attacker. The only thing the utility player has yet to do is to come out kicking a doll’s head, a sight we may yet see at the Maracana on Tuesday.