Feature

Long read: Gabriel's dreams for club, and country

Gabriel celebrates scoring against Everton

From the moment Gabriel started playing football in the streets of Brazil as a young kid, he dreamt of becoming a professional and one day playing for the best teams in the world.

It’s a familiar story for youngsters growing up in the football-obsessed South American country, yet very few make those dreams a reality. But now Gabriel has made his presence known at the top of the Premier League, the defender says he has plenty of ambitions still to fulfil.

Now in his third season at the club, the 24-year-old is desperate to win silverware with Arsenal, and has a burning desire to finally make his debut for the national team. They remain two huge motivations for him, and spur him on to work harder and develop every single day.

“I’ve learnt so much since I got here and over the last two seasons,” he begins. “I knew about the situation that the club was in when I joined, which wasn’t the best, but ever since first wearing this jersey, I’ve had ambitions – big ambitions.

“I have the desire to win trophies here at Arsenal and leave my mark on a club that welcomed me as much as possible. It’s a club that I love and that my family loves. There are certainly big ambitions here.”

Gabriel in Baltimore during pre-season

That’s the first mention of what is a common thread throughout this interview – family. Gabriel was born in Sao Paulo in 1997, and during his upbringing his father in particular was a guiding light, with one eye always on football, and the other on education.

“I can’t put the importance of my family into words,” he states. “Thank God, I had a very good education. My parents brought me up well. If I wasn’t doing well, my family was always by my side. If I was doing well, they were also there.

“My inspiration away from football is certainly my father,” he continues. “He battled hard for me to be here today. He’d always wake up early to go to work. He always wanted to get me into football. He’s certainly my inspiration off the pitch. He’s a person who’s always tried to do good things for me.”

"I’m now here at one of the best clubs in the world"

So how did young Gabi get started in the sport? Where did it all begin for him?

“I played football in the street with my friends all the time from a young age,” he explains. “We would play every day. There were lots of boys supporting Palmeiras and lots supporting Corinthians, so we’d pretend it was Palmeiras against Corinthians, and everyone wanted to win no matter what.

“I’ve loved football since a young age. Thank God, I’ve managed to keep my football going and my family has been a big part of that. My father has always been by my side for whatever I needed. I’m here today thanks to God and my father.

“There are always difficult moments, of course, but if you want to be a player, you have to get through many tough moments. That was the case for me when I was younger. All of those were a learning curve for me and gave me strength. Now thank God, I can smile while looking back at everything I went through and can see that it was all worth it.”

Gabi’s pro career began at Avai FC, a Brazilian Serie B side situated about 700km south of his hometown Sao Paulo. It was there, while still a teenager, that his life in football began to really take off.

“We came out of the Copa Sao Paulo and I then joined Avai as a professional player,” he recalls. “I scored a header on my debut, which was a defining moment for me.

“I then went on a good run and things started happening very quickly. A year later, I competed in the South American Under-20 Championship, off the back of which I was sold to Lille.

Gabriel playing for Lille

“Things happened very quickly in my life and thank God, I’m now here at one of the best clubs in the world.”

When Mikel Arteta and Arsenal came calling in the summer of 2020, Gabriel said he didn’t have to think too deeply, despite interest from a number of high-profile suitors.

“I always knew Arsenal was a very big club,” he says. “I had offers from other clubs, but my preference was certainly to come to Arsenal. I knew how big the club was and all about the aims and ambitions. Talks were very positive from the beginning and I’m thrilled to be here.

“I spoke to my father and my agent at the time. When other offers came in, we thought hard about them but as soon as we found out that Arsenal were interested and Edu called me, I didn’t think twice.”

"It’s certainly every Brazilian player’s dream to wear the national team shirt"

A goal on his debut certainly helped, but the Arsenal supporters took to Gabi immediately, voting him Player of the Month in each of his first three months at the club. It’s an affection that has continued to blossom, and one that is certainly mutual.

“We feel that love from the supporters out on the pitch,” he says. “They’re always behind the players on the pitch and not just during the best moments. If a player gives away a penalty or loses the ball, the most important thing is to stay focused.

“I experienced that myself against Fulham this season. I nearly let my head drop because I lost the ball and we conceded a goal in a game when I was playing well. But what matters is the reaction and bouncing back after a mistake. Thank God, I stayed focused and was happy to turn it around by scoring a goal towards the end.

Gabriel scores against Fulham

“I’m a guy who always wants to win,” he continues. “I’m always pumped before games and full of desire to do well. There’s that feeling in your stomach ahead of every match, which is normal and also a positive thing. The supporters help with that.”

Shortly after joining us, Gabriel was selected to make his debut for the Brazil Under-23 side, and at the end of the season he was named in the Olympic squad, only to miss out through injury. He has since been selected for the senior squad, but has yet to make it onto the pitch for his debut.

Making his full Brazil debut remains a huge goal for him. “It is, because when you’re called up for the national team, it’s a big step in your life. I certainly want to experience that again. I’m just trying to work hard here at Arsenal and I know the opportunities will follow.

“When you play for the national team, there’s a feeling that you’re representing your country and all the people that you see when you’re in your country. I think there’s no better feeling. It’s certainly every Brazilian player’s dream to wear the national team shirt.”

Gabriel in training

With a World Cup on the horizon, the incentive is greater than ever to break into the national team setup, and another motivating factor is to join up with a player Gabi cites as a major inspiration so far in his career.

“Since a young age, I’ve always enjoyed watching Neymar play,” he reveals. “We don’t play in the same position, but he’s certainly my idol. I’m still a big fan of his today.

“We haven’t played together yet, but I’ve been able to be together with him in training, and I spent some time with him when I was in the national team squad. I’m a big Neymar fan. I hope to get to play with him soon and he can set me up to score a header!”

Add it to the list of ambitions Gabi, and the way his career has panned out so far, you wouldn’t bet against him achieving it.

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