Adapting to new environments is nothing new for Gabriel. The latest addition to the Arsenal squad is a man who, while still a teenager, left his native Sao Paulo and travelled more than 1,000 miles north-east to begin his professional career at Esporte Clube Vitoria.
Three-and-a-half years after making his senior debut, Gabriel – along with his heavily-pregnant wife – was on the move again, this time leaving Vitoria and Brazil to join La Liga side Villarreal.
Having previously adjusted quickly to Bahia and then to Castellon, It’s no surprise to learn that Gabriel is getting to grips with London life too.
The athletic central defender says his wife and son are happy in England, and on the pitch the early signs have been positive too. Gabriel arrived at the end of January and started his Arsenal career in an assured and confident manner – helping the team two keep clean sheets in his first two starts – before the annoyance of a minor hamstring injury confined the 24 year-old to the sidelines.
The ‘Paulista’ (a name given to any native of Sao Paulo) feels the warm welcome he received from everyone at the club has aided his integration and, as he told us recently, is confident that his performances will improve further as he enhances his command of English.
Gabriel, let’s start by finding out a bit about your upbringing…
Well, since I was very little I always had the dream of playing football. There were many of us at home as I have five brothers and one sister, and all the boys tried to become football players. They all tried to have a professional career, but unfortunately no one succeeded and I tried to follow their steps. Since I was very little, I had many people telling me that it wouldn’t work. That was the norm at home. Many people in my family told me so but I always had it within me that I would make it. I was always playing with my school friends, playing in the streets.
I used to get home with my feet all bruised and I was always playing on pitches close to where we lived, and also in other neighbourhoods. Many people watched me play and liked what they saw, liked my football, and they would ask me to come and play in other cities too. So as I grew up, I became much more focused on it, because it was what I wanted.
At school I also entered many competitions. And I didn’t want to study. This was a problem, because what I wanted was to play football. I had my family picking on me, saying that I had to study first to then think about playing, so I told them that I couldn’t do that. I had to either study or play football, not both. I carried on playing football and I never stopped. I stopped studying – and that was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done that.
How old were you when you left school?
I was 16 years old.When I was 17 or 18, my mum came to talk to me and told me that I had to sort my life out, because I had to help out at home. My family always had great difficulties. My mum had many children and was already quite old. She didn’t have a job. My dad was the only one at work and he couldn’t support the whole family, so my brothers also worked, but they didn’t earn much and things were very complicated so I obviously had to help my family too.
So one day my mum came and talked to me, saying that I had to stop playing to try and help them, and I said no. I told her I would keep playing football. And I got a lot of criticism, people saying that I wouldn’t make it because I was already at an age where things get much more difficult. But I always said: “I have God with me. I have a lot of faith and I will do it.”
A few days later I was called by a team asking me to play at a tournament for those under 18. I knew everything would be much harder after I turned 18 because that would have been the last tournament for someone my age. If I got something from that tournament, great. If not, it was the end.
What happened next?
I went on to play at that tournament. I was playing for a small team from my hometown and we played against big teams. Our group got two big clubs, and we played a good tournament. I was one of the main players in my team, so one of the big clubs in our group, Vitoria Bahia, called me in for a trial. I came home after the end of the tournament and exactly one month later I was thinking that no one would call but a month on someone called and told me I’d have to travel the next day.
My family said: “No, you can’t travel you can’t travel tomorrow.” But I was definitely going. So I got a suitcase, grabbed the few clothes I had and went to Bahia. I started the trials spent nearly two months there. Some people at the club said that I wasn’t good enough for them and there were others saying that I was, and they gave me a little longer. Four months later I signed my contract. So to me that was great. It was my first professional contract. I was very happy. I could see that my dream was coming true.
What was your time at Vitoria like?
I was there for four years, and to me those four years were great. I will never forget this team that helped me so much. I have many friends there. And as soon as I started to play, there was some speculation from other big teams, big Brazilian teams, and that gave me even more will to work. I almost went to a team from Rio de Janeiro, Vasco, but it ended up not working out.
What was it like playing against Neymar, in the 2010 Copa do Brasil Final, at the start of your career?
It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life – to play against that amazing Santos team that had Robinho, Neymar, Ganso and many other great players. In the first leg of the final I was on the bench, but I got on in the second half. We lost 2-0 in that first game but it was an incredible experience. We won the second game 2-1, but ended up losing the title on aggregate at home, with the support of many fans.
Early in your career you occasionally played on the right. Why was that?
When I began to play professionally, I always played in defence, but by chance in one game we had no right winger because of injuries. The coach was getting worried, not knowing what to do, so I offered to help. And I played a great game. It wasn’t my position, and everyone was over the moon, because they saw that I could help in other positions too.
In the Brazilian final I actually played on the right flank, because our two wingers got injured. That’s why I had the opportunity to play, and that’s why I often ended up playing on the right wing. So I ended up having a great game, and whenever the coach needed anything he asked me if I could help, and I always said yes. I prefer my own position, at the back, my original position. But I can certainly help on the wings too.
What do you like best about playing at the back?
My main characteristic, since I was little, was always to want to defend. When we are little, we always want to be on the attack, but I realised that it wouldn’t work, so I kept going backwards and backwards.
The only thing I didn’t try was being a goalkeeper. I stopped there. So I started to play in defence and I started to do well, I started to enjoy it. I made my decision, I thought: “this is it! I’m not leaving here.” I began enjoying it and I started to want to defend, to fight not to let them in, not to let the other team score goals. So I always have that in my head – to want to defend, and defend well. And that is why.
Is it true that you had some disappointments at the beginning of your career with Gremio and Santos?
No, not with Gremio. With Santos, I had trials and didn’t pass the test. I was there for a week, and that week was a great experience for me, but I never had the opportunity to sign with Santos. I had highs and lows at Vitoria – because that is normal for an athlete – and can remember when I received a proposal from Villarreal, in Spain. I didn’t think twice, again, because playing in Europe was another dream I had. I talked to everyone – my family, my agent and the club as well. I told them that it was a dream for me and that I had to go. I went to Villarreal.
Tell us about the move to Spain...
It was my first time leaving my country and everything was new, so it was a little more complicated but I started to adapt to European football, because it is very different to Brazil. I did suffer a little. I didn’t play for three months, I only trained but I was always very focused, I worked hard. So I started to play and I started to do well in the team.
What was the most difficult thing about leaving Brazil?
I think it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t difficult either. My wife was seven months pregnant, and they wanted me quickly, because the window for transfers was about to close and I had to travel fast. I said that I would only travel with my wife and that I couldn’t go without her. But they said that I would have to go over first. So to me that made things a little more difficult, because I couldn’t let my wife travel alone, seven months pregnant. I just couldn’t.
But they insisted that I had to go. So I ended up travelling alone, and so when I arrived there my head stayed back with my wife, because she was seven months pregnant and she was coming with all of our things. We were moving country and all the responsibility was with her. But it was fast. She arrived in three days, but during that time I could only think of her.
I couldn’t think about my work because no husband will remain calm in these circumstances. At seven months, the baby is almost born, so my head was with my wife, but thanks to God everyone was fine. She arrived well and we have a beautiful boy.
How did you feel when you found out that Arsenal were interested in signing you?
I had the dream of playing in England. So I talked to my agent – not to put pressure on him by asking to come to England, but by saying that I had this dream. He said: “the way you’re doing, you can rest assured that you will get a very good proposal.
I’m not sure if it will come from England, but you will hear from a big club because of the work you’ve been doing.” So we had this chat at my place and a few days later, before the end of the year, we talked again and he said that Arsenal had called saying they were interested in me. So to me that was a sign. God always answers my dreams, he knows my wishes. God is always present in my life. I have a lot of faith in God.
So I was very happy, but I carried on working for Villarreal, doing my job. I had a contract there, and I had to defend the colours of the club that paid me. So I carried on working just the same. The days passed and it started to appear in the press. It appeared in the Brazilian media and I had my family asking about it, so all that began to grow. And I remained as always – centred, calm and focused on my team, and then I got the official offer. I transferred here, and what’s most difficult at the moment is to talk to people, because I don’t speak English.
Have you found a house in London yet?
Thanks to God we have already found the house. The only problem is that we need to buy furniture, because here it’s very difficult to find a house with everything in it. My biggest problem is just speaking but in terms of settling, I am totally adapted here at the club and with my team-mates, who are all wonderful and friendly. It’s a family club.
Everyone that works at the club is respectful and very attentive, they are always at your disposal. So I am very happy and so is my family. My wife and my son are happy. If my wife and my son are happy I feel even happier, and it gives me more strength and more will to work.
How was making your debut against Middlesbrough? Was it tough not being able to speak English?
When the coach spoke to me and told me I would play, I felt really calm. Then on matchday, when I got to the hotel I was still calm. But as soon as we got to the stadium, I felt butterflies in my stomach, which I think is normal for every player to feel that way. The day you stop feeling nervous is the day you should stop playing football. With me, it happens every game.
It happened during every game with Villarreal and it happened with Vitoria too. I’ve had butterflies in my stomach before every match. So I had that feeling, but as soon as I stepped on the pitch it was all gone. The feeling in my stomach went away. I saw that wonderful crowd, that great show, that beautiful stadium, and for me the game was quite relaxed. In relation to understanding my team-mates, I always wanted to be tuned into what my team- mate was doing so I could try doing the same. I tried to listen to him as well and listen to a few words.
Finally, how is your English developing? Have you learnt any key words yet?
Yes, in my lessons I always ask the teacher to teach me the main words we use on the pitch, like ‘defend’, ‘leave’ or ‘go back’. I had no difficulty during the game. We understood each other really well, and the most important thing is that we managed to win the game.”
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