Manuel Veth –
It is the 61st minute in the Copa America match, Brazil vs Ecuador, when the Seleção’s (as Brazil is often called) coach Dunga decides to bring on a fresh striker. The score is still 0-0—a good result for Ecuador, a disappointment for Brazil—the board shows a red number eleven, and a green number nine.
As a result Benfica Lisbon’s 32-year-old Jonas is off, and his replacement, the 19-year-old Gabriel Barbosa from FC Santos, is on. Jonas, who had once been dubbed the worst striker in the world, had a fabulous season with Benfica in which he scored 32 goals, which ranked him fourth in the European Golden Boot ranking at the end of the season—behind Luis Suárez (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuaín (SSC Napoli), and Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid).
Yet despite his recent goal scoring record Jonas is very much understood to be a placeholder for the young and talented Gabriel Barbosa, simply known as Barbosa or Gabigol.
Gabriel Barbosa Signed his Professional Contract with 16
Gabriel first emerged on the stage in 2012 when Santos signed him to a professional contract that included an exit clause worth €50 million. At that point Gabriel was just 16 years old. But at Santos—the club that discovered the Brazilian legend Pelé, and Barcelona’s Neymar—they were sure that they had unearthed another superstar.
Indeed comparisons have already been drawn to Neymar in particular. Ironically Gabriel debuted for Santos on May 26 2013 in a 0-0 draw against Flamengo from Rio de Janeiro, which was also Neymar’s last match for Santos. There had been rumours that Neymar would soon announce his departure, and indeed on the day of the match against Flamengo Neymar stated that he would leave Santos for Barcelona after the 2013 Confederations Cup.
Hence, the match represented both the past and present of Santos. With Neymar the king was leaving Santos, but with Gabriel, Santos once again had a promising talent who could eventually fill the void.
But at first Gabigol had to be patient, as Santos had signed the already established striker Leandro Damião from league rivals Internacional Porto Alegre in December 2013. Then in August 2014 the club signed former club idol Robinho for the 2014-15 season on a loan deal from AC Milan. Robinho was understood to fill the void left by club legend Neymar, and at the same time would allow young talented players like Gabriel to grow at the club.
At this point Gabriel was just 17, and with both Leandro Damião and Robinho above him in the pecking order the young star was limited in the playing time he received at the club. Yet Santos are known to be a cautious club when it comes to developing its most talented young players.
Santos Have Been Very Protective of Gabriel Barbosa
In a world where young South American talent is quickly bought up by Europe’s top clubs retaining a young player has simply become impossible. In some cases players are even signed before they make their debut for a club’s senior squad. At Santos officials have no doubts that players will sooner or later leave the club for big money in one of the major European leagues. At the same time the club wants to retain a player long enough to increase their market value, in other words Santos sells finished products rather than rough diamonds, as it is the case with many other South American clubs.
This strategy worked well with Neymar, who was retained at Santos until he reached the age of 21. At this point Neymar had completed four full seasons with Santos, and significantly increased his market value. Santos still managed to get robbed on the eventual deal that saw Neymar go to Spain, but received significantly more than they would have had the Brazilian made the move as a teenager.
Hence, Gabriel’s transition from the youth team to the first team was managed with caution. Despite this Gabriel managed to impress. In his first full season with the senior team Gabriel Barbosa scored eight goals in 31 Série A matches, and another seven in 18 Paulista (state championship) matches. Not bad considering that he was supposed to play second fiddle to both Leandro Damião and Robinho.
In 2015 Gabriel increased his number in the Série A to ten goals in 30 matches. Barbosa was limited to three goals in the 2015 Paulista, but would end up celebrating winning the state championship with his club. He also added eight goals during Santos’ 2015 Copa do Brasil title run. He then scored seven goals in just 17 games during Santos’ 2016 Paulista State Championship run, which ended with Santos defending its title.
At just 19 Gabriel has already become the face of FC Santos, and there seems to be indeed parallels to Brazil’s superstar Neymar. Yet while they are both play on a similar position, somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a striker, and are almost the same weight and height—Neymar measures 174 cm and weighs 68kg and Barbosa measures 176cm and 68kg—Gabriel appears to be far less fragile than Neymar was at the same age.
Like Neymar Gabigol is Not a Typical Number Nine
This is further reflected by Gabriel’s play on the pitch, where Neymar often looks for a creative solutions on the pitch Gabriel’s style is far more direct, as he tries to play quickly up the field to either execute a play himself or to play a long ball for one of his attacking colleagues.
Like Neymar, however, Gabriel is no true old school number nine striker, like his Brazil teammate Jonas. In a time where the definition of a central striker becomes ever more blurry—away from big guys with a nose for goals, towards smaller more mobile players who can play knots into the legs of big defenders—Gabriel could indeed be the solution for Brazil’s problems on the number nine position.
These attributes explain in particular why Gabriel has appeared on the radar of major clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, and London-based club Arsenal. Both the English Premier League, and the Bundesliga are known for fast turbo football. At the same time, however, Bundesliga clubs place far more emphasis on technical and tactical abilities, as opposed to the head through the wall football that is often played in England. Hence, a move to Germany might be the next logical step for a young player like Gabriel.
For now, however, Gabriel will focus on the Copa America Centenario, where Brazil will have to improve after the match against Ecuador. Gabriel, whose 30 minutes on the pitch were unremarkable, will have to do better in order to make the starting eleven, and then to impress scouts from big European clubs, which will without a doubt follow his progress at the tournament very closely. It might indeed be difficult to shine on a Brazilian team that misses several stars including superstar Neymar, who is sitting out the Copa in favour of the Olympic Games taking place in Rio de Janeiro this August.
One commentator even noted that this might be the worst Brazilian team ever to be sent to a tournament. That said for Gabriel this might also be the perfect opportunity to break onto the world stage, as he will be guaranteed playing time with Neymar gone. The tournament in the United States could therefore become the moment to step onto the global stage, and make Gabigol the most sought after prospect of this summer’s transfer window, but also prepare him mentally for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where his country will expect nothing short but a gold medal from the Seleção.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. His thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available later this year. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.