Ever since the emergence of Neymar in the Santos first team back in 2009, the hunt has been on to crown the next golden talent of the club's youth system. The Paulista club that famously produced Pele have acquired quite a formidable reputation for youth development since the turn of the millennium in particular, with the “Meninos da Vila” (Kids of the Vila [Belmiro]) moniker having passed from the group of Diego and Robinho to that of Neymar and Ganso half a decade on. Given the abundance of young players in and around the club's first-team setup once more this season, it is understandable that many anticipate the title to be passed on once more in the near future.
The current crop of youngsters have begun 2014 performing well above expectations, finishing second in the Sao Paulo state championship and beginning the Brasileirao season with an unbeaten record of a win and three draws. Admittedly, it could also be looked upon that they lost to lowly Ituano in the Paulistao final and have won just one of four league games, but perspectives differ.
However, given the number of major players the club has lost over the past couple of seasons, it is considered a respectable showing by most. This, after all, is a side frequently containing 20-year-olds Emerson and Jubal in defence, 21-year-old Alison in midfield and a 17-year-old Gabriel Barbosa in attack. Given the side's relative inexperience, a top-four finish is beyond most fans' wildest dreams for the months ahead.
There are plenty more talents at the club and, indeed, 21-year-old centre-back Gustavo Henrique would likely be in the starting lineup but for his injury concerns. Another young promise, Neilton, looks set to leave the club in the direction of Cruzeiro, while both Giva and Stefano Yuri are also seen as strikers of some potential. Once seen as the biggest talent of all, meanwhile, fellow forward Victor Andrade is once more being reprimanded for attitude concerns with a stint in the club's under-20 side. For all these excellent prospects, however, it is the light of Gabriel that shines brighter than all others.
While Brazil international Leandro Damiao sits on the bench for O Peixe, his once glistening reputation dwindling by the day, he is forced to watch on as a player seven years his junior takes on a starring role. Like Andrade, Gabriel has been touted as a major talent for a few years, but unlike his close friend, the boy brought to the club by former star Zito has kept himself largely on the straight and narrow. His goal to help his side off the mark in their 2-0 victory at Figueirense last weekend was his 12th of the calendar year, propelling him further ahead at the top of the club's scoring charts and further adding to his growing importance within Oswaldo de Oliveira's side.
Nicknamed “Gabigol” for his incredible scoring feats at youth level, the youngster joined Santos at the age of 10 and quickly shot through the academy ranks. It was in 2012, though, that his name began to earn wider recognition when he signed a contract containing a 50 million-euro release clause on the day of his 16th birthday. As a club, Santos are not shy in hyping their emerging prospects in the knowledge that it is a very profitable industry, but there was real reason for hope behind their willingness to make such a public statement in this case.
Nearly two years have passed since and he is now a fixture in the first-team setup, having made his debut in the Brasileirao nearly a year ago. His rapid progress is far from unusual in Brazil, where the production of footballing talent is achieved in astonishing quantity. The levels of performance he has quickly reached in the first team, though, set him on a par with the very brightest jewels of recent years in Neymar, Coutinho and the less prosperous Lulinha.
The Brasileirao may not be in the best phase of its history, confirmed by the absence of its sides in this year's Copa Libertadores semifinals, but it is full of wily veterans who don't take kindly to being overshadowed by young upstarts. To succeed at 17, great mental and physical strength is required.
Gabriel is not a mercurial dribbler in the manner of Neymar, but that is not to say he doesn't have technical abilities of his own. His first touch is often wonderfully deft, while he is an excellent finisher -- particularly off his favoured left foot. While not especially tall, standing a couple of inches shy of six feet, he has decent strength for a player of his age and is already filling out.
Typically deployed as a second striker who can play in attacking midfield, Gabriel's long-term future may lie at centre-forward in the right formation. His pace can stretch defences, while he is intelligent in his positioning. Given Brazil's lack of truly top-class No. 9s at the current time, it is certainly an option worth considering.
Gabriel, though, has not been a favourite of the national youth ranks. Despite already boasting decent first-team experience, he was only a substitute option for Alexandre Gallo's under-17 side at the World Cup late last year. His rivals were formidable, but none could offer Gabriel's level of experience. In the latest under-20 squads announced for both the Toulon Tournament and Panda Cup, he has once more been overlooked.
He should not be concerned. At club level, his star continues to rise and, indeed, it is reported that Barcelona have already secured first option on his services as part of the deal that took Neymar to Spain. Others, though, will be tempted to challenge the Catalans' hold on his services.
There are dangers, though. The aforementioned Lulinha demonstrates what can happen to a young player's career if too much pressure is applied too early. However, there have been few signs of Gabriel doing anything other than thriving under the pressure. The coming months, in what will be his first full Brasileirao season, will be important for his career, learning to deal with the demands that his senior role will now bring. It is an important stage of his development and one that will determine how quickly, if at all, he can fulfill his potential. His progress, though, will be tracked every step of the way.
For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout’s Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can be found at TheElastico.com.