abriel Magalhães had to travel nearly 500 miles for the trial that changed his life. He did not have enough money to stay in Florianópolis for more than a couple of days so Avaí FC had to make up their minds quickly. It took just one training session for Gabriel to convince the club he was their new centre-back. However, despite his obvious talent, his first stint with the club lasted a mere week. Gabriel was homesick in the south of Brazil and quickly returned to São Paulo to be with his family.
He was 15, cried a lot and had trouble fitting in with his teammates. Yet this was a chance to help his loved ones seal financial security. After speaking to his father, Gabriel called Diogo Fernandes, who still coaches at Avaí, and told him that he would like to return. Diogo agreed.
“We knew this could happen as the first problem a footballer faces is being far away from their family,” he says. “We also knew that Avaí would be one of the few clubs that would accept Gabriel. He was skinny and very tall, a left-footer, but he was a bit soft in challenges and couldn’t head the ball too well. We were right in the end, though: he was the biggest transfer in Avaí history [when sold to Lille in 2017] and a superb player.”
Gabriel was battling for a spot in the youth team with twin brothers. Gabriel had no previous experience at academy level, but he came out on top. Niltinho Costa, his first coach at Avaí, remembers watching him play for the first time in his trial, on a synthetic field in the rain.
Niltinho spotted his ability and work ethic immediately. “We already had two left-footers on the squad, but we had to let one go so Gabriel could play for us. When I saw him play, I thought: ‘Man, this guy can be a professional when he turns 18.’ He was also a great guy, ‘um amor de pessoa’ [a sweetheart], as we say here in Brazil. I used to talk with him a lot, mentoring him on the field and giving him support when he was homesick. The only thing that was a problem was being born in December, because it took him more time to develop physically with him being almost a full year younger than some of the other kids.”
Gabriel was shy and continued to miss his family, but the boys at the club and the help of a psychologist made him feel at home. As a skinny player, though, he had to bulk up and also learn how to improve his flaws. “There’s a funny story about his career,” Diogo remembers. “Marcão, who is now at Galatasaray, was the first choice in their position and Gabriel was on the bench. However, we learned that Marcão was skipping class and we couldn’t accept that at Avaí, so we had to drop him. His father didn’t take that well and Marcão didn’t come to the club for three months as a result. Gabriel then became the first choice. His chance came against Flamengo in a Copa do Brasil match. From then on he began succeeding even more.”
Just like Marcão, Gabriel was not fond of class. Diogo says he was a malandro – a rascal. “If his football career doesn’t turn out well, he’ll have to rely on his studies,” Diogo thought. So the club contacted Gabriel’s family and tried to find a relative who had finished their studies to highlight the importance of going to school.
His godmother travelled down to Santa Catarina to drill some sense into the boy. “It was a very rough moment,” laughs Diogo. “She came and we talked to him, explaining all the benefits he would gain by going to school. He needed it because, after that, something snapped in his mind and he changed. Gabriel was very well mannered so, every time we had to talk to him seriously, it was easy.”
He’s the type of player who cries if the team loses. This kind of feeling is very important.
Gabriel kept improving on the pitch, although he had to toughen up. “There was no chance of being a good defender if he was soft or if someone even thought he was soft,” says Niltinho. “I told him: ‘Gabriel, you have to be more physical. You have to get close to these guys and you cannot let them pass you.’”
Just as he was settling, tragedy struck back home. A close childhood friend, who was like a brother to him, was killed in a car accident. Gabriel thought about giving up again, but Niltinho kept encouraging him. “I went to another club at the end of that year, but I kept in touch with him. He was in his second year at Avaí when it happened. I suppose [talking to him] helped him a lot, because we had some good chats. Gabriel was a very family-oriented boy, and still is, and this kind of thing messes with your head. I even tried to bring him to Palmeiras, but Gabriel chose to stay with Avaí.”
Gabriel’s loyalty towards Avaí is something to bear in mind, insists Flávio Albano, who is in charge of the club’s youth teams. “It’s always good to have a player that honours the outfit he plays for, as Gabriel did,” says Albano, a great player in his own day at Grêmio and Fluminense. “He’s the type of player who cries if the team loses. This kind of feeling is very important and we are seeing it even less in football these days. I just wish he had stayed with us longer, but we understand that players are leaving Brazil very early these days. It’s a tendency now at every club.”
Despite his youth, Gabriel captained Avaí at times before signing for Lille in January 2017. He had just celebrated his 19th birthday and Lille manager Marcelo Bielsa did not think he was ready for the first team, deciding instead to send him on loan to fellow Ligue 1 side Troyes and then Dinamo Zagreb. Bielsa took the club into the relegation zone, was quickly sacked and replaced by Christophe Galtier.
Gabriel returned to Lille in 2018 and established a solid partnership with José Fonte, the former Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham centre-back. Galtier was suitably impressed, saying: “I saw he had great potential and he was able to seize the first opportunity he got. He was hungry to play, and while he bided his time, he worked a lot. He’s an example for other youngsters to follow. It’s a sort of intelligence to behave like that. How often nowadays do you see players not working if they’re not in the squad?”
Lille held on to Gabriel for as long as they could but, when Arsenal offered £27m in September, they relented. Arsenal have started the season poorly but Gabriel has continued to impress, winning the club’s player of the month award in September and October, and scoring against Fulham and Wolves in the league.
For anyone who saw him play in Brazil, this success has not been a surprise. “He was not built by talent, but by his will to improve his shortcomings and learn that he could surpass any difficulties life throws at him. We knew he could be a top player from the start. A lot of Brazilian clubs wanted Gabriel, but his place in the spotlight was destined to be in Europe,” concludes Diogo Fernandes.