Regardless of what happens in Qatar, Gabriel Martinelli is already a winner with Brazil.
The most successful nation in the history of the World Cup might not have gotten their hands on the famous trophy since 2002, but they were celebrating last summer when their under-23 side took gold in the prestigious Olympic football tournament at the delayed 2020 event in Tokyo.
Gabi was part of the victorious squad. It was only the second time the football-obsessed nation had won Olympic gold – retaining the title they won in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – but like many of the players who were part of that squad last summer, he now has his eyes on the biggest prize of them all in Qatar.
The likes of Bruno Guimaraes, Antony and Richarlison have all joined Gabi in moving from the Olympic squad to the senior selection, while elder statesman Dani Alves - now 39 years old - also brings his incredible experience to the side again, having been one of the over-age picks in Tokyo.
"The whole experience was fantastic, the level was high of course, but I didn’t feel out of place"
Gabi said being surrounded by so many world-class talents while on international duty is invaluable for his development.
“I was so happy when I was selected to be part of it in Japan,” he recalls. “The whole experience was fantastic, the level was high of course, but I didn’t feel out of place.
“I remember my dad always liked Dani Alves who has won just about every title there is, so it was amazing to go to the Olympics with him. You need to learn from players like that, look at how they behave and how they are in the dressing room, it’s a great example. It’s a gift, and it gives you more confidence as a player.”
Drawn in Group D with Ivory Coast, Saudi Arabia and Germany, the Brazilians stormed to top spot with two wins and a draw, Gabi featured in the last two group games from the bench. He watched the quarter-final win over Egypt from the bench, then was called upon in the second half in the semi-final against Mexico.
“Growing up I always dreamed of playing for Brazil and representing my country, but to be honest I never thought the dream would become possible"
He couldn’t help find the breakthrough though, and it went to penalties for a place in the gold medal match. Just a few weeks after his 20th birthday, Gabi was the second man up to take a spot kick, after Alves had converted the first. He kept his nerve against experienced keeper Guillermo Ochoa, and Brazil went on to win the shootout 4-1.
“I went to Tokyo to play and be part of it,” Gabi said, “and it was great to make a contribution. I asked the coach if I could take one of the penalties and I was confident to step up. I had taken penalties before, against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup for example, so it wasn’t my first one.”
Gabi didn’t feature in the final, but Brazil’s 2-1 extra-time win over Spain meant that he was presented with a gold medal at full-time, a proud moment for the whole Martinelli family.
“It’s a huge honour to win an Olympic medal,” he said, “and who knows maybe I can win another one in Paris [in 2024]! It was a wonderful experience, I cannot tell you how amazing it was, I want to thank all the fans who were behind us.
“Growing up I always dreamed of playing for Brazil and representing my country, but to be honest I never thought the dream would become possible. My family loves the Olympics, of course they all love football but my mum especially loves the Olympic sports like volleyball a lot too, and I used to watch it with her always.”
Gabi, who joined Arsenal from Sao Paulo side Ituano in 2019, had never represented his country at any level before that Olympics, though had been involved in previous squad selections and had trained with the senior side.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this year though, that he made his full debut for A Selecao in a World Cup qualifier win over Chile. Brazil had already booked their place in the finals, but continued to dominate the South American qualifying section in style, running out 4-0 winners in the famous Maracana Stadium last March.
Gabi came on as a late replacement for Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior and did enough to be called upon again in the next qualifier, playing the last 36 minutes of a 4-0 win away to Bolivia. Then in the summer, he won his third cap in a friendly away to Japan, playing his part in a 1-0 win – coming on alongside Gabriel Jesus for the last half hour.
With such a wealth of attacking talent available to head coach Tite, his selection for the World Cup squad was far from certain, despite his excellent form for Arsenal over the past 12 months or so. But on November 7 he was named among the 26 players who will be hoping to lift the World Cup for a sixth time.
Gabi was just one year old when his nation were last world champions, but as a Brazilian, he has naturally been brought up watching the tournament every four years.
“I was five for the 2006 World Cup, and I remember watching that, but my favourite memory of the World Cup is 2014, because it was in Brazil,” he said.
“I especially remember that goal scored by David Luiz, remember the free-kick against Colombia? I watched it at home – what a goal that was.”
This time though, he won’t be watching at home. He’ll be part of the action, hoping to create his own memories in Qatar, and become the golden boy of the new Brazil generation.
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