DONA LÚCIA RIBEIRO was watching with incredulity at her home in north-east Brazil when her son picked up a banana from the side of the Villarreal pitch in Spain and ate it in front of millions.
The pre-planned act of defiance by Barcelona defender Daniel Alves in the face of racist abuse went viral in April, sparking debate even within his own family.
‘I was shouting, “don’t eat it”,’ Dona Lúcia said, wringing her hands with mock despair. ‘If he’d told me this idea before, I’d have said don’t eat it because it’s dangerous — it could have been spiked.’
With Brazil about to host the World Cup and Alves the most capped outfield player in the squad, the whole country pulled behind the popular right-back, including President Dilma Rousseff, while the ugly issue of racism in football was once again in the spotlight.
But for those who know him best, the banana-eating stunt showed Alves at his most natural — simple, sanguine and playful, qualities he has displayed since a boy.
He may now be one of the world’s most expensive defenders but Alves’s roots were planted in the remote fields of the countryside, where his character was formed by his father, Seu Domingos.
One of five, Alves grew up working alongside his father on the dry land of Salitre, a poor, rural region in Bahia that was once the gateway to the slave trade in Brazil.
‘It was a hard life, difficult but happy,’ said Alves. ‘Despite working in the field, planting things with the sun at 40 degrees, we were happy.’ He describes himself as being a ‘goat from the countryside’.
‘He would work all day on the farm, arrive back at 5pm and pick up the ball to play football,’ said his mother. ‘He and Domingos were always together.’
The family grew melons, tomatoes and onions on rented land in the village of Umbuzeiro, where the earth turns orange under the baking sun and the roads are dusty tracks.
And it was here that Seu Domingos set up a football team, taking part in village championships on parched pitches with goals made of branches.
They could hardly have imagined that, 20 years later, there would be a picture of Alves and his Barcelona team-mates hanging on the wall of the family’s bungalow where his uncle and aunt still live amid roaming goats and mud houses. In Alves’s old bedroom, the same concrete divan beds lay beneath the exposed tiled roof that lets in sunlight.
‘The house was simple but one of the best around. When it rained, the water did not fall through,’ said Alves.
Elias João, who played against Alves when they were children, described how the climate made conditions difficult for those living off the land.
‘The river dried up when we were children and when the river dries up, everyone suffers a lot,’ he said.
Despite Alves’s reported £5million-a-year salary and a new family home in a gated community in the nearby town of Juazeiro, his father still farms land near the ground that created him in Umbuzeiro.
Climbing down from his tractor after a hard day on the farm, Seu Domingos heaved a sack of onions into the back of his pickup. ‘Daniel has raised the value of bananas. I might start growing them,’ he joked, smiling under his straw hat.
But he had no idea Alves had suffered racism until he spoke out after the banana incident.
‘I saw it with Neymar but after this business with the banana, he gave interviews and said he had suffered for many years but I never saw it,’ he said. ‘To have 70,00-80,000 people shouting is very upsetting, very complicated. I think it exists in our country as well.’
When Alves started playing, he was a winger in the shadow of his older brother, Ney, but he was moved to right-back because of a lack of goals. ‘He went two to three months without scoring and he was the third choice,’ said his father. ‘But he was very intelligent. It shows in his playing.’
As a teenager, Alves left the dirt plains for the state capital of Salvador, following his brother and his dreams of playing for Esporte Clube Bahia. Backroom staff at Bahia described how he persevered in training and took on board criticism while remaining the simple player from the ‘interior’.
Ricardo Palmeira, goalkeeping coach at Esporte Clube Bahia, said: ‘Dani is a simple guy, he was always very respectful. He always wanted to improve. He always wanted to look after his family and the first money he earned, he sent back home.’
He made just 25 appearances for Bahia before moving to Sevilla, where he stayed until his £23m move to Barcelona, which made him the world’s most expensive defender.
‘Ney started to play football and he left Juazeiro first and soon he took Dani as well,’ his 53-year-old mother said.
‘He used to say he wanted to play for Bahia, for São Paulo. He never thought about leaving Brazil, he really wanted to play for Brazil.’
She recalled how a young Alves used to practise his autograph for relatives and friends and she said that from the age of six, his ambition was to play in a World Cup. On May 7, the day after his 31st birthday, he was named in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad.
Alves has made more than 70 appearances for his country, becoming one of the most senior players in Brazil’s squad and the second most capped after Julio Cesar.
‘When he was called up I thought this is the biggest surprise of my life, that we got what we wanted,’ added his mother because the people of Salitre find it hard to believe one of their own has been chosen to represent the country. She still has the voice message she sent to her son when the Brazil squad was announced.
Her voice broke as she told him: ‘I’m crying with happiness. You’ve given up so much in your life for this. I’m behind you, I love you.’
While this year’s World Cup is likely to be his last, he is expected to face fresh challenges by moving on from Barcelona.
He is rumoured to be a target of Manchester City and his family confirm that he is unlikely to stay at the Nou Camp.
In the meantime, Alves and his colleagues face the pressure of securing Brazil’s sixth World Cup.
‘It’s going to be emotional,’ said Dona Lúcia. ‘I love football. We’ll travel to watch the games.’ Alves remains confident and determined to do his best.
He said: ‘I hope we unite the strength of all Brazilians so that we can realise this great dream. We accept the pressure … I’m sure we’ll get the ultimate prize.’