It has been barely three months since Brazilian forward Neymar left his home country and childhood club Santos to join Spanish giants Barcelona in one of the biggest deals of the summer, weighing in at a mammoth 57 million euros (48.6 million pounds).
You wouldn't have blamed Santos Futebol Clube for struggling to produce another player with levels of quality and skill similar to Neymar for at least a few years, given that Neymar was the first player of significant quality to emerge from the Santos youth set up since former Real Madrid and Manchester City forward Robinho. However, it looks like the club that produced Pele, possibly the greatest footballer ever, has unearthed another gem, thus maintaining its reputation as one of the world's greatest conveyor belts of world-class attacking talent.
The gem in question is a young forward who, at 16 years of age, has already captured the attention of the Peixe (a nickname for Santos FC), and scored his first goal for Santos' senior side in the club's 1-0 win over Gremio in the first leg of their round-of-16 clash in the Brazilian Cup on Wednesday of last week.
However, to learn about the story of Gabriel Barbosa Almeida, commonly known as "Gabigol" for his goal-scoring prowess, we will have to start from the very beginning.
Gabigol was born on August 30, 1996 in Sao Bernardo do Campo in Sao Paulo, and joined Santos' youth set up in 2004, aged 8. His style of play and prolific goal-scoring form for the club's youth teams sparked intense comparisons to the fleet-footed Neymar, who was just beginning to make a name for himself in the Brasileirao.
The comparisons with Brazil's number 10 forward persisted all through Gabigol's youth career, and were strengthened when the 16-year-old scored against Gremio's veteran keeper Dida with a low left-footed shot from inside the penalty area. Neymar had scored his first goal for the senior team in only his third professional appearance, while Gabriel's coming off the bench against Gremio marked his sixth appearance for the club, and his first outside of league competition.
However, Gabriel scored his first senior goal after just 124 minutes of game-time, while Neymar had taken 149, as reported by GloboEsporte.com, thus making the 16-year-old the faster goal-scorer. Also, if one considers that Gabriel is actually two months younger than Neymar was when he scored for Os Santasticos for the first time, it does not take much to put two and two together and realise that Gabigol has a fantastic future ahead of him.
In what will come as a shock to those who had not heard of the forward before this week, the man who was responsible for helping him (and Neymar before him) make the successful transition from the youth teams to the professional circuit had ear-marked him for glory almost 6 years ago. Betinho, the scout who also found Robinho, was effusive in his praise for the youngster.
Gabriel was only 10 when Betinho first created public awareness of his abilities. He gave an interview to GloboEsporte.com at the time saying that Gabriel could “be playing at a very high level in the future.”
“It’s a pleasure to see what’s happening now,” Betinho told the website this week. “Like I said a few years ago, he can be the idol of a generation.”
Gabigol has played for the Brazil U-15s, and was recently called up to the national U-17 side, and while his appearance against Gremio only came about as a result of the unforeseeable unavailability of a team-mate, the youngster can take great heart from his coach's comments regarding his chances for the future.
Santos coach Claudinei said that the youngster stands a very good chance of getting more game time after having taken advantage of his chance.
“There is no doubt that this is going to help him find his space in the team", the coach was heard telling local media after the defeat of Gremio.
While Europe's top sides were unable to lure Pele to the continent in the 60s and 70s, they have since succeeded in getting Robinho and Neymar to switch continents relatively early in their respective careers. However, coaxing Gabigol away from the club that took him in as an 8-year-old will prove to be an arduous task for even the biggest sides in Europe, seeing as Santos and the player's representatives reached an agreement in September 2012 to tie the player to the club for the foreseeable future, and even slapped a gargantuan 50-million-euro release clause on the player.
For now, it seems likely that the player's wish to stay in Brazil and grow as a player at Santos FC will be fulfilled, and there is yet some time to go before the world will be able to witness his talent at the international stage.
However, footballing connoisseurs would do well to take note of the name Gabriel Barbosa Almeida, as he looks like he could become one of the world's greatest players over the next few years. The future looks very bright for Santos FC and for Brazilian football in general.
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