With ‘Diego, Diego’ ringing around Mestalla and Valencia’s goalkeeper smirking, stalling and psyching, you could be forgiven for thinking the home side were never particularly upset when they conceded a penalty.
The players, being players, argued with the referee of course. But that simply became part of the elaborate routine that created an interminable delay, cranking up the pressure on the taker. Diego Alves was always keen to discuss the approaching drama with his co-star, any lever to weaken the resolve. And when the whistle blew, he would sway like a slalom skier, bound forward, almost challenging the referee to stop him and then spring.
Half the time, it worked. Think about that for a second. Sometimes the process itself seemed to defeat the opponent. I’ve seen stronger back-passes than Carlos Vela’s penalty for Real Sociedad back in December. Around three-quarters of penalties end up in the back of the net, so for a ‘keeper to have anything like a 50-50 record is incredible. In his time in Spain, Alves saved 24 penalties and was beaten by 24, with two missed. The best of the rest don’t come close (although Gianluigi Donnarumma saved four from nine penalties in 2016-17, with Milan showing a Valencian disregard for the art of penalty-box defending).
There have been times when I wondered whether Los Che’s defenders were deliberately fouling just to see Diego save another penalty – he kept out five of the 10 they conceded last season. The only other explanation is that they really were that bad at tackling, which seems a little far-fetched.
His scalps were impressive: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo (twice), Diego Costa, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic, Carlos Bacca, Fernando Llorente, all starting with Fredi Kanoute in 2008, when Alves was a 22-year-old playing for Almeria. The best was probably from Antoine Griezmann last October, diving full length to keep the ball out. Or you may prefer his remarkable recovery to deny Kelvin Mateus’ rabona in a preseason friendly against Porto.
His last penalty save in Spain was against Deportivo La Coruna’s Faycal Fajr in April. He has been jettisoned with little ceremony, for a measly €300k, despite recently appearing in a club video, saying he was happy to stay. Los Che have brought in another Brazilian – Neto from Juventus – and apparently new boss Marcelino didn’t want the experienced Alves sulking on the bench.
The suitors weren’t queuing up. He talked to Depor, before deciding to move back home and play for Flamengo, which might help him compete for a place in Brazil’s World Cup squad. In truth, he had never rediscovered his peak since a long-term injury, looking shaky at times with the ball at his feet. In mitigation, he was playing for Valencia and in the last two campaigns, most of their outfield players have looked shaky with the ball at their feet.
He was never a world-class ‘keeper – more an agile shot-stopper, with a sound all-round game. At 187cm, he wasn’t the sort of titan who would survive an English club’s recruitment checklist. He came to Spain in 2007 to join newly-promoted Almeria and helped them to an unlikely eighth place, before leaving four years later to again link up with Unai Emery at Valencia. He impressed until he tore knee ligaments against his old club at the end of the 2014-15 season. He returned a slightly diminished figure – except from the spot where his excellence was undimmed and his reputation became legend.
A little of La Liga’s theatre has gone with Diego Alves, but the videos have been cut, his reputation earned and the legend of the penalty king will grow and grow.