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
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