This week, Arsenal media released a pair of videos profiling the life and career of Brazilian centre half Gabriel. What is so unusual about Gabriel is his complete lack of profile. His career has thus far taken on a very unique and swift trajectory. Consequently, he does not enjoy any sort of status in his home country. Gabriel was a late bloomer. As a teenager, he failed trials with hometown clubs Santos and Serie D (the Brazilian equivalent of League Two) side Grêmio Bareuri.
He was eventually picked up by Taboão de Serra, who are effectively an amateur club, playing in the Paulista Serie B regional state league. Gabriel, his mother and his 5 siblings grew up in an impoverished favela called Jardim Eledy, near Tabão de Serra, they endured hardship in this petri dish community, where violence was commonplace. Aged 19, Gabriel sensed his chance to break into professional football when Tabão de Serra were drawn in the same group as Vitoria in the prestigious Copa São Paulo youth tournament. He impressed sufficiently to earn a trial with the Salvador based club.
Gabriel gathered up his meagre possessions and journeyed to Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil, to spend three weeks training with Vitoria. The culture in the nordeste region of Brazil is markedly different to São Paulo. Gabriel found the trial arduous, he received little to no feedback as to his performance during the training sessions. His friends and family were too poor to make the long journey to Salvador to join him. Gabriel became lonely and briefly considered returning home. But his determined nature won over, he stayed and Vitoria offered him a contract in 2010.
In November 2010, he came on as a substitute in both legs of the Copa do Brasil Final against Santos. In the second leg, he was called for early in the game due to an injury and was detailed to man mark Neymar, who failed to score whilst under Gabriel’s steely gaze. But the damage had already been done by the impish Neymar in the first leg and Santos were victorious. Vitoria suffered double heartache in that season, as they were relegated from Serie A on goal difference. Gabriel spent the next two years in the second tier of Brazilian football, hence his anonymity on home soil.
In November 2012, he briefly made the news when he confronted a throng of angry Vitoria fans who had ambushed the team at Salvador airport after a bad result. A stray beer can tossed by a Vitoria fan struck him on the head and Gabriel spun to front up the baying mob. Diego Costa will attest that Gabriel is a player willing to stand up for himself.
Vitoria were promoted a month later, in December 2012, and this is where the inclination of Gabriel’s career becomes jet powered. He was voted defender of the tournament as Vitoria romped to the Campeonato Baiano (the Bahia state championship) and he began the Brasileirão season in superb form as Vitoria roared towards the top of the league. They were fourth in the table in August 2013 when Spanish club Villarreal had seen enough. Villarreal have an unparalleled scouting presence in South America and less than half a season of Brazilian top flight experience provided them with satisfactory evidence of Gabriel’s talents.
This further explains why Gabriel’s profile is virtually non-existent in his country of birth. He materialised rapidly, seemingly from nowhere and outgrew his surroundings quickly. His transfer was greeted with little more than a collective arched eyebrow of surprise in Brazil. This was the country’s golden season in terms of exporting to Europe. That summer (in European parlance), Neymar left Santos for Barcelona, Paulinho joined Spurs from Corinthians and Bernard left Atlético Mineiro for Shakhtar Donetsk. In comparison, Gabriel’s move to La Liga barely registered on the Richter scale.
Gabriel’s initiation at Villarreal was treated with kid gloves. The Spanish club had just been promoted back to La Liga following relegation in 2012. He initially provided back up to first choice centre halves Chechu Dorado and Mateo Musacchio. At the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Musacchio was injured and Gabriel took his place at centre half. He did not relinquish the position, playing a starring role in a stubborn Yellow Submarine side. A few months of scouting proved to be plenty for Villarreal when they signed Gabriel from Vitoria and Arsenal continued the trend, needing only half a season worth of evidence before signing off on his transfer.
Yet again, Gabriel was making a big step up. 24 months after playing in the Bahia State Championships, he was now wearing Arsenal’s number 5 shirt. Following the trail blazed by Vitoria and Villarreal, the Gunners took the softly, softly approach with Gabriel, inducting him into the team slowly. There is a curious pattern apparent in his career, a gentle inauguration is often followed by a cyclone like rise to prominence. It’s a stencil that looks to be continuing given his early season form, which has seen him challenge the established Mertescielny axis at centre half. In going toe to toe with Diego Costa, he has even begun to establish cult hero status.
When he first arrived, Wenger suggested that Gabriel’s geographical lineage was important. “He’s from São Paulo. He’s a paulista. You have Rio players and you have São Paulo players. One is a beach area [Rio] and the other is more hard-working.” There’s no particular reason for Wenger to be familiar with the precise nuances of regionalised culture in this huge, sprawling nation. But this was an unusually poor stereotype from the manager, especially when one considers that some of his more dubious Brazilian signings, Julio Baptista, Denilson and André Santos, are also paulistas. In private, I doubt he would venerate the work rate of that unholy trinity. (Edu and Silvinho are also from São Paulo).
However, Gabriel’s upbringing has likely shaped his determined approach to defending. He candidly describes the violence and poverty that enveloped his community in the interviews with Arsenal Media. Like all genuinely tough men, his expressions are not performative. His stare could crack glass, but he doesn’t act tough, because he doesn’t need to. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez said that not having played in an academy as a teenager had given him an edge in the Premier League. He has maintained the unpredictability and resolve of the untutored street footballer.
It is probably similar for Gabriel, who was not reared in the Perspex confines of a school of excellence. He was effectively an amateur footballer until he was 19, having honed his style in a concrete jungle of unforgiving and uneven streets. If he looks well-armed for conflict, it’s probably because his entire career, nay, his life to this point has been a fight. Gabriel’s story is one of a silent tornado that swooped down from the favelas and in no time at all, took London by storm.
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