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The rise of Gabriel Magalhaes: How Arsenal’s new signing became one of Europe’s most imposing defenders 

Gabriel dos Santos Magalhaes of Losc Lille during the during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Valencia CF and Losc Lille at Estadio de Mestalla – NURPHOTO

Fourteen years old and more than 400 miles from home, Gabriel Magalhães decided that enough was enough. Uncomfortable, unhappy and consumed by homesickness, he packed his bags at Avaí FC, in the Brazilian city of Florianópolis, and made the long journey back to his family in São Paulo.

Gabriel had been offered a permanent place in the Avaí 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 simply did not seem worth the pain. He was not even one of the star prospects at Avaí, who had only taken a punt on this gangly teenager because he was tall and left-footed.

It was Gabriel’s father, Marcelo, who eventually convinced him to return, 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 co-ordinator at Avaí. “He called me and asked us if we would take him back,” Fernandes tells Telegraph Sport. “We ended up saying yes. So he came back and started his story here, with us.”

The story has a new chapter now: Arsenal. A deal worth around £25 million has been agreed with Lille, and one of the most exciting defensive players in European football is about to be added to Mikel Arteta’s squad, when the transfer is officially finalised as expected in the coming days. 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. “He is a player we have followed for a long time,” said Arteta this week.

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. His tale is one of resilience and courage, while his rise serves as a compelling lesson in the importance of making the most of your opportunities in life.

“He was raw in his abilities,” says Fernandes, thinking back to when Gabriel first arrived for his trial at Avaí. “He was a boy who still needed to be shaped. When we first signed him, we were thinking about working with him so he could evolve with the rest of his age group. We did not lay eyes on him and think: ‘This guy will be an amazing defender.’ He was signed mainly because of a few traits: tall, thin and left-footed.”

Gabriel pictured here at age 16 - Alceu Atherino Neves/Alceu Atherino Neves / Avaí FC
Gabriel pictured here at age 16 – Alceu Atherino Neves/Alceu Atherino Neves / Avaí FC

Gabriel’s first experiences of football had come much earlier, when he played on the streets in São Paulo with his friends. His idols at the time were all attacking players: Robinho, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo. 

Born in December 1997, Gabriel was the youngest in his year-group at Avaí, who now play in Brazil’s second tier. If he had been born a few days later, he would have played with the year below. At first this worked against him. “He was not very mature,” Fernandes tells Telegraph Sport. A quiet boy, he was far from being the most expressive character. He struggled at the start but on the pitch he listened and learned.

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 far from being a star-in-waiting in Brazil, until one fateful day brought a much-needed moment of good fortune.

A 15-year-old Gabriel was set to be a reserve for the youth team, behind the older kids, for a Brazilian Cup match against Flamengo in 2013. But the defender who was due to start ahead of him had been skipping school. They are strict about these things at Avaí, so the player was dropped. He subsequently stropped for months, affording Gabriel with a sudden, unexpected opportunity to play a year above his age group. He excelled, and from there he kept on excelling.

Gabriel playing in the youth team at Avai in Brazil - Alceu Atherino Neves/Alceu Atherino Neves / Avaí FC
Gabriel playing in the youth team at Avai in Brazil – Alceu Atherino Neves/Alceu Atherino Neves / Avaí FC

Having arrived at Avaí as an awkward defender, train-track braces still fixed to his teeth, Gabriel now had momentum. By the end of 2016 he was playing for the club’s first team. By the end of 2017 he was representing Brazil at under-20 level. 

“I chose him because of his technical quality and his strength in the air, going forward and at the back,” says Rogério Micale, then the Brazil under-20 coach. “He was a very tall, very strong player, and he had good recovery speed. He is an athlete with immense potential.”

Still, he was far from the finished product. “He needed to improve his build-up play and to understand defensive lines, especially in a back four,” Micale tells Telegraph Sport.  

The call-up to the Brazilian youth team brought attention, with Palmeiras and Flamengo among the interested teams. The race was won by Lille, though, who agreed to pay around £1.5m. Avaí were wise enough to include a 15 per cent sell-on clause and those at the club say the money they will receive from his move to Arsenal, when it arrives in the bank account, will be crucial to their investment in the academy. 

Gabriel runs with the ball for his old youth team - Alceu Atherino Neves/Alceu Atherino Neves / Avaí FC
Gabriel runs with the ball for his old youth team – Alceu Atherino Neves/Alceu Atherino Neves / Avaí FC

Shocked by the cold and without a word of French, Gabriel needed more time and more patience in Lille. He was soon loaned to Troyes, whose manager described him as a “rough diamond”. Gabriel said then that his intention was to “impose myself in Europe” but he made just one appearance for the club’s first team before being shipped out, on another loan, to Dinamo Zagreb.

He enjoyed his time in Croatia, featuring mostly for the youth team, and even asked if he could stay. During that spell he played a youth team match against Arsenal in Borehamwood, which Zagreb lost 2-1. His opponents that day included Joe Willock, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson, all current first-teamers in north London. 

Luis Campos, Lille’s director of football, rejected Gabriel’s request to remain in Croatia. He was to return to the first team, to fight for a place. Once again, as it was for his breakthrough in Brazil, he got lucky. This time it was an injury, suffered by Lille defender Adama Soumaoro, that gave him his opportunity.

This happened as recently as February 2019, and Gabriel has not looked back since. Last season was his first full year as a senior starter in Europe and, playing alongside the experienced Jose Fonte, Gabriel soon became one of the most commanding, physically imposing defenders in France. Of all the defenders who competed at least 200 duels in Europe’s top five leagues last season, only five had a better success rate than Gabriel.

“I feel he is among the top five dominant central defenders in Europe right now,” said Gerard Lopez, the Lille president, in April. “He is an absolute machine. I am certain he is on his way to the Brazilian national team at some point.”

Gabriel picked up French remarkably quickly, which should help as he grapples with English over the coming weeks. He also has a penchant for self-analysis — watching his performances, studying areas of weakness — that will impress Arteta and his coaching staff. Last season’s biggest improvement came in his passing, using that left foot to play the ball between the lines and into midfield. 

Arteta wants left-footed options at the back, to provide balance, and the prospect of Gabriel forming a long-term partnership with young William Saliba will be a source of considerable excitement for his new head coach, as well as the Arsenal supporters.

During lockdown, Gabriel had plenty of time to think about his future. He returned to Brazil for a while, after the Ligue 1 season was cancelled, but also endured the strict coronavirus restrictions in France. At one point he was told off by the police for failing to show the required paperwork when he left the house.

All the while, he was considering his options. Everton had come in for him early, and Napoli were very keen. Manchester United are also understood to have made a late, informal approach. But Arsenal edged in front thanks in large part to Edu, their technical director. 

Sources close to the deal describe Edu as “decisive” in the 22-year-old’s decision to choose Arsenal, with the Brazilian connection proving crucial in convincing him to come to London. Arteta was also heavily involved, talking to the player and explaining the club’s vision. Between them, Arteta and Edu were “insistent” with Gabriel, speaking regularly and making it as clear as possible how much they wanted him at the club. To the player, they came across as credible and genuine.

The history of the club appealed to Gabriel and, in a suitably modern twist for a player who was born in 1997, it is understood that he was also persuaded by Arsenal’s fans. He had been bombarded with messages on social media in recent weeks, when it was unclear where he would be going, and the stream of pleading requests to join Arsenal genuinely helped him to reach his decision. They made him feel wanted.

In itself, the transfer represents a significant personal victory for Edu, who took over negotiations following the sudden departure of Raul Sanllehi, their former head of football, earlier this month. For Arsenal it is a collective triumph, or it will be if Gabriel continues his upward trajectory when he starts life in English football. 

“It will be natural for him,” says Micale. “It is just a matter of understanding the club, understanding the coach’s ideas. Gabriel will not have any problems with adapting to the Premier League.”

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