Diego Alves had a 47 percent success rate in Spain.
There will have been sighs of relief from La Liga’s biggest stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, when it was confirmed this weekend that penalty-saving superstar Diego Alves was leaving Valencia and returning home to Brazil to join Flamengo.
The goalkeeper’s penalty record during his decade in Spain (four years at Almeria and six seasons at Valencia) was spectacular. He has saved almost half the penalties he has faced in his career, denying high-profile spot kick takers including Ronaldo, Messi, Griezmann, Diego Costa, Carlos Vela, Ivan Rakitic, Fernando Llorente and Carlos Bacca, all the way back to his first stop from then-Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute back in April 2008.
Last September, the Brazil international broke the longstanding La Liga record of 17 penalty saves, set by former Spain, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, when he parried away an effort from Leganes’ Alexander Szymanowski.
Alves moved the Primera Division’s all-time record to 22 by denying Ronaldo again in a 2-2 draw at Madrid last April. The Portuguese now has scored just one of the four spot kicks taken against Alves over the course of their careers.
That Bernabeu effort also meant Alves saved six of the nine spot kicks he faced in La Liga last term — setting another new record and sealing his reputation as one of the best penalty savers of all time, anywhere.
Since arriving in Spain, Alves has stopped 24 of the 50 penalties he faced — with one going wide and another hitting the crossbar.
His 47 percent success record is way, way ahead of anyone else in La Liga history. The closest is former Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao keeper Vicente Biurrun (coincidentally another Brazilian) who had a 28 percent ratio, closely followed by ex-Sevilla stopper Andres Palop with 27 percent.
Such success understandably led to many questions over the years about how he does it, but the quietly spoken Brazilian was never keen to give away any secrets. While he had clearly done his research on the technique of opposition players, as time went on it seemed his success was principally due to clever use of his “unbeatable” reputation as he got in the mind of his opponent.
In October 2014, after saving easily from Atletico’s Guilherme Siqueira (who had previously scored 11 of 12 in La Liga), he gave a rare insight to Spanish radio show El Larguero about what he called a “psychological war” between penalty taker and keeper.
“It is a bit about intuition,” Alves said. “I always see it as a psychological war. There is no specific work for it. It is a moment in the game when nerves come into it. You have to try and win that war.”
Strangely, Alves’ excellence in this area has not yet translated into significant recognition on the international stage. He made his debut for Brazil back in October 2011, during Mano Menezes’ time in charge, but has so far only won a total of 10 caps and not appeared at any international tournament.
Messi has been one to miss against Alves and won’t want to see him at the World Cup.
Most unfortunately, he was selected for the 2013 Copa America by then coach Dunga, but had to pull out due to injury. Inevitably Brazil exited to Paraguay on penalties at the quarterfinal stage, losing 4-3 in the shootout.
Critics have maintained that other elements of Alves’ game do not match his penalty saving expertise, and his height at 6-foot-1 is on the short side for a goalkeeper. He is not usually one for coming into traffic to deal with crosses, preferring to stay on his goal-line and rely on his reflexes.
Valencia had spent the last couple of transfer windows trying to offload a player whose contract was signed back in 2014, when Singapore businessman Peter Lim was in generous mood during his early days as club owner. While there were rumours of interest from bigger clubs in Europe, the only real bidder in recent weeks seemed to be perennial strugglers Deportivo La Coruna, and the reported fee as he returns to Brazil is just €300,000.
A summary of Alves’ up and down time in Spain came in the La Liga game against Atletico Madrid last October — when he saved penalties from both Griezmann and Gabi, but his team still lost 2-0 at home.
“I don’t care about the saves,” he said on Spanish TV after that game. “I always say when penalties saved help the team to win I’m happy, but not when we lose.”
Still just 32, Alves will hope that his career arc will rise again back at home. Current national coach Tite gave him a chance in last June’s 4-0 friendly win against Australia, and you would think the Selecao could do with a penalty-expert on the bench at least at the 2018 World Cup.
If Brazil face a penalty shootout against Argentina and Messi, or Portugal and Ronaldo, at some point in the knockout stages in Russia next summer, having Alves in between the posts would certainly make a difference.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan