Dani Alves, who was this morning sentenced to four and a half years in prison in Spain after being found guilty of sexual assault, was, until very recently, one of global football’s golden boys.

An exuberant, technical right-back, he was a major part of the Barcelona team that set new standards in the European game between 2008 and 2016. He played 126 times for Brazil and won 43 titles across his 22-year playing career — an astonishing number that makes him the second-most decorated footballer in history. Only Lionel Messi, his former team-mate at the Camp Nou, has more trophies to his name.

That success, coupled with a relentlessly upbeat public persona, made Alves a hugely — almost universally — popular figure. It goes some way to explaining why his hearing, which took place over three days in a Barcelona courtroom earlier this month, was labelled “the trial of the year” in certain sections of the Spanish press. Despite its voyeuristic undertones, that epithet did capture just how spectacular Alves’ fall from grace has been.

On December 9, 2022, Alves — 39 at the time — was on the bench as Brazil played Croatia at the World Cup in Qatar. Exactly six weeks later, he was arrested by Catalan police, accused of raping a 23-year-old woman in a private bathroom at a Barcelona nightclub on December 30, 2022.

Those accusations have now been upheld by Catalonia’s High Court of Justice. “The court has no doubt that the vaginal penetration of the complainant took place using violence,” read a statement released by the court after this morning’s hearing.

Alves has spent the last 13 months in a detention facility some 25km northwest of Barcelona; requests for provisional release were denied because he was considered a flight risk and there is no extradition arrangement between Brazil and Spain. After his prison sentence he will be on supervised probation for five additional years. He was also ordered to pay the victim €150,000 (£128,500; $162,700) in compensation, plus legal costs.

Alves began his senior career at Bahia, one of the biggest clubs in Brazil’s north east. He moved to Spain at 19, joining Sevilla — initially on loan and then on a permanent deal after winning the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship with Brazil’s under-20 side.

At the start, some questioned whether Alves had the physical strength to compete in La Liga. His interpretation of his position, though, made the doubters reconsider. Alves was technically a defender but defending was not his speciality. He was a free spirit, a de facto winger in the mould of his boyhood idol, Cafu.

Sevilla quickly worked out that they had to harness that energy rather than curb it. Alves was encouraged to get forward, to make use of his speed and skill in the final third. He helped the Andalusians to their first European trophy in 2006, setting up the opening goal in the UEFA Cup final against Middlesborough, and was similarly influential as they retained that title in 2007. A year later, he became a Barcelona player.

His initial eight-season spell at the Camp Nou — he later made a short, largely forgettable return during the 2021-22 season — turned Alves into a superstar. He won six Spanish league titles, three Champions Leagues and 14 other trophies during that time, rarely missing a match. You would struggle to name another full-back who came anywhere near matching his influence and consistency over the same period.

It helped that his arrival at Barcelona coincided with that of Pep Guardiola. The Catalan’s possession-centric approach suited Alves perfectly and revealed fresh nuances in his game. His combination play with Messi in particular was one of the trademark features of what many consider the best club side of the modern era.

Alves, right, won 23 trophies with Barcelona (Shaun Botterill – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Even after leaving Barcelona in 2016, Alves remained a prominent figure. He reached another Champions League final with Juventus at the age of 34 — “an extra-terrestrial,” Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci called him — and won two French titles with Paris Saint-Germain. When he returned to Brazilian club football in 2019, signing for Sao Paulo FC, 45,000 fans turned up at the Morumbi stadium to welcome him.

That he never quite replicated his success at club level with his national team was probably to be expected. Alves played for Brazil during an extended period of flux and, bizarrely, only became a regular starter during the latter stages of his career. He would have captained the Selecao at the 2018 World Cup, only to be ruled out of the tournament due to injury. He did wear the armband the following summer, however, leading Brazil to a Copa America win on home soil.

Alves’ attitude — chirpy, cheeky, apparently carefree — arguably won him even more admirers than his ability. A little personality can go a long way in a sport as overwhelmingly self-serious as football, and the Brazilian always seemed determined to take his onto the pitch with him rather than leave it in the changing room.

Over time, Alves leaned into this persona, becoming a full-time cultivator of his own image. He dabbled in modelling, released a single and embraced social media. He seemed to a have tambourine or drum in his hand whenever he stepped off the Brazil team bus. He turned his description of his own character (“good crazy”) into a catchphrase. Whenever he signed an autograph, he drew a smiley face inside the capital D.

Alves played for PSG between 2017 and 2019 (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

It has become a rite of passage for footballers to publish long first-person pieces on the Players’ Tribune website. Alves has contributed two of them: one about his modest upbringing and another reflecting upon the pain of missing out on the 2018 World Cup. “Dani Alves is not going to the World Cup,” read one emblematic line, “but he is still one happy motherf*cker.”

Later, when he moved to Sao Paulo, the same website produced a seven-part documentary about Alves’ life. In one episode he talks at length about his iconoclastic fashion sense, mugging at the camera in a series of designer jackets. In another, he discusses his relationship with music. Episode three is about Alves reconnecting with his two children from his first marriage. Its title is The Family Man.

That strand of Alves’ reputation now lies in tatters along with all the others.

Earlier in February, the High Court of Justice of Catalonia heard testimony relating to Alves’ “slimy attitude” from the victim’s friend, who had been present at the Sutton nightclub on the evening of the incident. While the victim’s statement was delivered in private, her testimony — previously reported by The Athletic based on evidence from earlier hearings — gave a detailed account of Alves holding her against her will in a toilet cubicle and penetrating her without her consent.

Alves was sentenced to four and a half years in prison (ALBERTO ESTEVEZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

This morning, the court upheld that version of events, concluding that Alves had “abruptly grabbed the the complainant, threw her to the floor and, preventing her from moving, penetrated her vaginally, despite the fact that the complainant said no, that she wanted to leave”.

In a statement, the court said that “injuries to the victim (made) it more than evident that there was violence to force the victim to have sexual relations”, and that “the accused subdued the will of the victim with the use of violence”.

The defence lawyers plan to appeal the decision.

The emphatic nature of the verdict, however, means that it will be hard to look at Alves in the same way ever again.

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)