Gabriel’s rise from homesick teenager to Arsenal’s £25m de­fen­sive ‘ma­chine’

➤ New ar­rival at the Emi­rates needed good for­tune to break through in Brazil then France but is now an im­mense tal­ent

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Football - By Sam Dean

Four­teen years old and more than 400 miles from home, Gabriel Ma­gal­haes de­cided that enough was enough. Un­com­fort­able, un­happy and con­sumed by home­sick­ness, he packed his bags at Avai FC, in the Brazil­ian city of Flo­ri­a­nop­o­lis, and made the long jour­ney back to his fam­ily in Sao Paulo.

Gabriel had been of­fered a per­ma­nent place in the Avai academy, hav­ing im­pressed in a trial, but he did not plan to re­turn. Never be­fore had he been away from his fam­ily and, in that mo­ment, foot­ball did not seem worth the pain.

It was Gabriel’s fa­ther, Marcelo, who even­tu­ally con­vinced him to go back, re­mind­ing his son of the scale of the op­por­tu­nity he had in his grasp. Af­ter a week of thought, Gabriel picked up the phone to Diogo Fer­nan­des, the foot­ball co­or­di­na­tor at Avai. “He called me and asked us if we would take him back,” Fer­nan­des tells The Daily Tele­graph. “We ended up say­ing yes. So he came back and started his story here, with us.”

The story has a new chap­ter: Arsenal. Gabriel has signed a fiveyear deal af­ter a £25mil­lion trans­fer was agreed with Lille.

Com­mand­ing in the air, pow­er­ful on the ground, strong in the tackle: Gabriel ap­pears ready for Premier League foot­ball, and a no­to­ri­ously wob­bly Arsenal are cer­tainly ready for him.

The jour­ney, though, has not been smooth. Those pangs of home­sick­ness were far from the only dif­fi­cul­ties faced by Gabriel, who has needed time, pa­tience and – most of all – a con­sid­er­able amount of luck to make it this far.

“He was raw,” Fer­nan­des says, think­ing back to when Gabriel ar­rived at Avai. “He needed to be shaped. We did not lay eyes on him and think, this guy will be an amaz­ing de­fender.”

Born in De­cem­ber 1997, Gabriel was the youngest in his year group at Avai and, at first, this worked against him. “He was not very ma­ture,” Fer­nan­des says.

In time, as he started to fill out his im­pos­ing frame (he now stands at a broad 6ft 3in), Gabriel’s devel­op­ment be­gan to ac­cel­er­ate. Yet he re­mained a long way from be­ing a star-in-wait­ing in Brazil, un­til one fate­ful day brought a mo­ment of good for­tune.

A 15-year-old Gabriel was poised to be a re­serve for the youth team for a match in 2013. But the de­fender who was due to start ahead of him had been skip­ping school, so was dropped. That gave Gabriel an op­por­tu­nity to play a year above his age group. He ex­celled, and from there he kept on ex­celling.

Hav­ing ar­rived at Avai as an awk­ward de­fender, with braces still fixed to his teeth, Gabriel had mo­men­tum. By the end of 2017 he was rep­re­sent­ing Brazil Un­der-20s.

“I chose him be­cause of his tech­ni­cal qual­ity and his strength in the air,” says Roge­rio Mi­cale, then the Brazil Un­der-20 coach. “He is an ath­lete with im­mense po­ten­tial.”

That brought at­ten­tion, Lille even­tu­ally win­ning the race for his sig­na­ture for just £1.5 mil­lion.

Shocked by the cold and with­out a word of French, Gabriel needed to be pa­tient again. He was soon loaned to Troyes be­fore be­ing shipped out to Di­namo Za­greb.

He en­joyed his time in Croa­tia and even asked to stay. Luis Cam­pos, Lille’s di­rec­tor of foot­ball, re­jected Gabriel’s re­quest. In­stead, he was to re­turn to the first team, to fight for a place. Once again, as for his break­through in Brazil, he got lucky.

This time it was an in­jury, suf­fered by Lille de­fender Adama Soumaoro in Fe­bru­ary 2019, that gave him his op­por­tu­nity. Gabriel has not looked back since. Last sea­son was his first full year as a se­nior starter in Europe and Gabriel soon be­came one of the most phys­i­cally im­pres­sive de­fend­ers in France.

“I feel he is among the top five dom­i­nant cen­tral de­fend­ers in Europe right now,” Ger­ard Lopez, the Lille pres­i­dent, said in April. “He is an ab­so­lute ma­chine.”

Dur­ing lock­down, Gabriel had time to con­sider his op­tions. Ever­ton and Napoli both wanted him and Manch­ester United are also un­der­stood to have made an ap­proach. But Arsenal edged in front thanks to Edu, their tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor.

Sources de­scribe Edu as “de­ci­sive” in the 22-year-old’s de­ci­sion to choose Arsenal. Mikel Arteta was also heav­ily in­volved. “Hav­ing the coach him­self call­ing you to say he wants you in his squad mo­ti­vates you a lot,” Gabriel says.

He was also per­suaded by the club’s fans, who had bom­barded him with mes­sages on so­cial me­dia. “That played a big part,” he says. “I hope I can con­trib­ute to many ti­tles with the Arsenal shirt.”

‘He was raw. We did not lay eyes on him and think, this guy will be an amaz­ing de­fender’

Mak­ing his name: Gabriel Ma­gal­haes has not looked back since break­ing into the Lille team last year

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