July 13, 2007 7:34 pm

Tank about to be parked on Chelsea’s lawn

You wouldn’t guess that Alex was a 25-year-old footballer. A hairless giant with fat rolls, he looks more like a 40-year-old heavyweight boxer going to seed. He never gives the impression, as other footballers do, of a perfectly trained body giving its all. When Alex shadows a forward, as he will for Brazil against Argentina in the Copa America final on Sunday, and as he should for Chelsea next season, he never looks hurried. He loafs in the guy’s general vicinity and when he needs the ball, simply extends a hoof and obtains it. If you are superman, you don’t have to strain every sinew.

This week Alex said he was joining Chelsea but British fans seemed scarcely to have noticed. Few Brazilians seem very interested in him either, nor indeed in their current national team. Jose Mourinho, Chelsea’s manager, gives no sign of rating Alex. Yet if other judges are right, Alex is so good that if only Chelsea had summoned him last winter he might have won them the league. The Premiership could get a supersized surprise.

Alex was born just outside Rio in Niteroi, a quiet and well-run town by Brazilian standards. The son and nephew of defenders, he was that rare being: a gifted Brazilian footballer who wanted to defend. Defenders are so disdained in Brazil that they are seldom even granted nicknames. Alex Rodrigo Dias da Costa has been simply “Alex” all his career.

He soon won the Brazilian title with Santos. Chelsea seem to have chaperoned his move to Europe in 2004 but he was parked at PSV Eindhoven to await the summons to London. The many South Americans who do time in Eindhoven are often baffled by the Dutch provinces, where people spend their evenings at home and you have to book in advance to see them. Alex, however, liked the quietness. He is a shy man who seldom speaks. “Graça de Deus,” “Thanks to God,” punctuates his few statements. He was nonetheless pleased, only months after his arrival, to be handed PSV’s captain’s armband. Captain so soon! Then he looked around and saw that his teammate Jefferson Farfan was captain too. In fact, the whole changing-room seemed to be captain. It was later explained to him that a Dutch prince had died – the black armbands signified mourning.

On the field, though, everything made sense. Alex seemed to know exactly what an opponent would do, and though he looked as though he should have a large turning circle, his feet were quick. In sport, size is good and so is mobility. Usually there is a trade-off between the two. Not in Alex’s case. “He makes strikers feel despondent,” noted PSV’s general manager Stan Valckx. “In the first half, you see them gesturing wildly for the ball. After half-time, that’s over.” When opponents tug at his shirt or push him, Alex rarely even notices. A Greek striker who absent-mindedly gave him an elbow immediately decided that the better part of valour was discretion and apologised.

In Brazil, a central defender’s job is to defend and to leave real football to the footballers. Alex, being a disciplined bloke, did just that. But when the Dutch demanded that he play football too, he revealed he could do it brilliantly. One of his many goals for PSV was a left-footed backheel behind his right leg, and woe the opponent who accidentally blocked one of his free-kicks. In Holland, he finally acquired his nickname: De Tank. “A tank, but a beautiful tank,” he chuckles.

The Tank helped PSV to three straight Dutch titles and a Champions League semi-final. Milan’s manager Carlo Ancelotti named him his favourite centre-back, Holland’s manager Marco van Basten picked him for his world eleven and, after PSV overcame Arsenal in March, Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger said: “He kept their defence tight, saved them every time and dominated our players in the air easily.”

Finally Brazil’s managers noticed Alex too. When he first walked into the national team’s hotel in Oslo, he gaped at all the superstars but was soon welcomed into their anguished conversations about the kidnappings of footballers’ relatives in Brazil. After last year’s World Cup, he became a regular international.

Last winter Chelsea needed a centre-back. Club officials reminded Mourinho that they could summon Alex for free. Mourinho, who had recently signed the Dutch dud Khalid Boulahrouz, said no. That possibly cost him the title.

It has long baffled Brazilians that Chelsea could spend four years rounding up the world’s best players without buying a Brazilian. That omission is finally being rectified. A more urgent national concern, however, is tomorrow’s final against Argentina. Brazilians have mostly ignored this year’s Copa America, partly because they generally win it anyway and partly because of their team’s boring “bureaucratic football”. But tomorrow’s match is different. Beating Argentina is always enjoyable and to do so now would be hilarious given that the whole world has praised the Argentines. Alex will need to stifle the world’s scariest forward, Lionel Messi, though since Messi is only 5ft 7in, Alex could save time by simply swallowing him whole.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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