Meet Gabigol, the Brazilian teenager who could be the next Neymar
"Personally I am always seeking the goal," the new hope of Brazilian soccer, Gabigol, tells me on the phone from his home in Santos. Watching a video of the 19-year-old, you see what he means. This delicate left-footer is a very direct forward, an unusually quick passer and shooter by today's leisurely Brazilian standards. There is a touch of Thierry Henry about the way he keeps looking and places the ball carefully into the corner of the net, instead of blasting blindly.
Gabigol -- real name Gabriel Barbosa, or "Gabi" to intimates -- is being touted as the next big thing out of Brazil. His canny management team already has a plan in place: stardom at this year's Rio Olympics, then a move to a serious European team. Barcelona reportedly has first option on him.
So who is Gabigol?
"I'm a very easygoing guy," he introduces himself in his gently spoken way. "I come from a poor community, but ever since I started playing soccer things have got better for me and my family."
He began playing in his hometown of Sao Bernardo do Campo just outside Sao Paulo. On his arm is a tattoo of his father carrying him on his shoulders to a training session. It really happened, when the family couldn't afford the bus fare.
At 8 years-old, Gabigol joined Santos, and his family moved to the port town with him. Now he says, "Santos means everything to me. It's basically my second home. I play for the team I support -- not only me but my family. I know every single employee."
As a city, Santos is overshadowed by the nearby metropolis Sao Paulo. The club is not historically one of Brazil's best-supported. Yet for any talented young Brazilian forward, the Santos shirt has a special meaning. These are the black-and-white stripes previously worn by the young Pele, Neymar and (somewhat less illustriously) Robinho. Gabigol says, "I am very aware of the special history. For me it's not a weight to wear the jersey that has stars in its history. I want to write my own story, to be one of those players."
In eight seasons in the youth leagues he scored over 600 goals, acquiring the nickname "Gabigol". At age 16, in 2013, he made his first-team debut against Flamengo. It also just happened to be Neymar's farewell game before his departure for Barcelona. In a clever marketing ploy, Santos let the two play side by side for 20-odd minutes, thereby implicitly presenting Gabigol as the next Neymar.
His career hasn't gone continuously uphill since. He is only 5-foot-9, still has a teenager's physique, and under previous Santos coaches sometimes found himself on the bench. But there have never been many doubts about his potential. Gabigol has something of Neymar's light-footed speed, an eye for the assist as well as for goal, and a versatility that allows him to play as winger, No. 10, or a slightly withdrawn centre-forward.
He is also more serious than certain Brazilian players. Even on holiday he trains with a personal coach, and his family has organized itself in service of his career. His father represents his business interests (a system that didn't work brilliantly for Neymar), and until recently Gabigol shared a house with his parents and sister near the Santos stadium.
Having family around helps, because stardom in Brazil means frenzy. "I recognize I'm becoming famous," Gabigol says. "I really have to turn myself off. When I'm not playing, I am seeking peaceful moments. I always try to spend as much time as possible with my friends and family. I try not to lose my old attitudes."
It would have been easier had he come through 15 or 20 years ago, when Brazil had countless stars. But Gabigol is emerging in what Brazilian fans are calling an "entressafra", a fallow period between two harvests. Such is the dearth of talent that 35-year-old Ricardo Oliveira -- who after an undistinguished career in Europe now lines up alongside Gabigol at Santos -- has recently played centre-forward for the national team.
No wonder a desperate nation is placing great expectations on a kid. "I am honored every time someone mentions me," says Gabigol.
Eighteen months ago he watched on TV as Brazil hit their all-time low, losing 1-7 to Germany in the World Cup semifinal. "Like every Brazilian I was cheering, supporting, hoping," he says. "It served as a learning experience for Brazilian players: Brazil isn't out there alone in international soccer anymore."
To say the least.
Gabigol adds, "I realize that Brazilian teams are tactically behind the Europeans. I am trying to learn tactically from my coach, Dorival Junior, who recently came back from some internships in Europe."
Indeed, the tactical naivete of the Brazilian league makes it hard to assess where Gabigol stands. Watching his goals in domestic soccer -- he has 45 in 126 professional games -- you notice how often he scores unmarked. Nobody can go from this league to the top of European soccer and adjust easily: it took even Neymar a season. But as Neymar shows, it can be done.
Gabigol's move to Europe is drawing nearer. The respected website Transfermarkt recently rated him the most valuable player in the Brazilian league, with an estimated transfer value of €12 million, just ahead of Alexandre Pato. But he's in no hurry to cross the ocean. He will choose his club carefully, having already rejected a big offer from Fenerbahce in Turkey, and, reportedly, another last week from Fiorentina. Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal are also said to have shown interest.
"I really don't think I should be worried about when I will move to Europe," he says. "Right now I'm more concerned about being ready. I'm always training hard."
Gabigol has no preconceived ideas about which league to move to, but he does say: "If it turns out to be in southern Europe that would be great, as hopefully it would be easier to adjust there both culturally and in soccer."
Meanwhile, he is getting to know European soccer by watching it on TV and playing the obligatory videogames.
He's likely to stay with Santos at least until the Rio Olympics in August, when he is expected to line up alongside Neymar again. "It's a very important event for Brazilians, especially considering the last World Cup," Gabigol says. "Brazil has never won the Olympic football gold. It has never hosted the Olympics. This is a special edition. For me it would be a dream."
But for the most demanding nation of soccer fans on earth, gold in Rio would be only the beginning. The next step would be Gabigol forming a forward line with Neymar and Bayern Munich's Douglas Costa in Russia in 2018 as Brazil's national team makes the long and possibly endless journey to redemption from that 1-7.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.