The rumours had been swirling and the intrigue in East London had been growing, but after almost three months of speculation, it has been confirmed that skilful Brazilian striker Gabriel Barbosa will not be joining West Ham, or indeed any of his other Premier League suitors.
Instead, the man who topped the scoring charts in Brazil in 2018 whilst on loan at his boyhood club Santos from Inter Milan will be moving back to his homeland once more – this time to pull on the red and black shirt of Rio de Janeiro super-club Flamengo.
News of the one-year loan deal came as a considerable surprise to observers in Brazil. After his successful season with Santos, during which he managed 27 goals in all competitions, handing him the golden boot awards in both the Brazilian league and cup, it was widely expected that he would return for a second shot at success in a top European league.
A comeback at Inter Milan, where he failed to break into the team after his €30 million move in 2016, was not an option. “For the next six months we will have no space for him”, said the club’s sporting director Piero Ausilio, “We are happy with what he has done and we will find the best solution with him.”
But few would have guessed that that solution lay back in Brazil. Clubs in South America generally do not have the sort of cash required to pay for a player who Inter wanted upwards of €20 million for and who reportedly earns €50,000 a week.
The Premier League, where money is an inconsequential hurdle to most negotiations, seemed a far more likely destination. West Ham, as well as Fulham and Everton, were known to be seriously interested.
According to reports, the move faltered upon West Ham’s application for a work permit. But it is not entirely clear why the permit was denied.
Barbosa, known as Gabigol in Brazil, did not meet the international cap requirements imposed by the FA. But then neither did Felipe Anderson, who West Ham brought in in the summer, nor did Richarlison, who moved from Fluminense to Watford in 2017.
Whatever the reason for the negative response, it is a shame that we will not be seeing Gabriel test his mettle in the English top flight this season.
In today’s market, it is rare that we see a genuinely intriguing transfer. We are able to watch football matches from all over the world with ease and can see lengthy YouTube videos of individual highlights any time we please, spoiling the sort of (good and bad) surprises international arrivals used to supply.
With Gabigol, however, there was a real sense of risk. As mentioned previously, he has always excelled in Brazilian domestic football – to the point where he was handed four international caps in 2016.
But during a season in Milan and another half season in Portugal with Benfica, he was an unmitigated disaster, making just 15 appearances and scoring two goals. Reports of a poor attitude in training would not go away.
As Philippe Coutinho proved after moving to Liverpool in 2013, though, failure at Internazionale does not necessarily mean you are a bad player. Gabriel Barbosa would have been a gamble for West Ham, but one that could have huge rewards were it to come off.
And the conditions seemed set for him to have a good chance of success in Stratford. West Ham already have a substantial South American contingent in their squad and have manager with whom he could communicate freely, which would ease his adaptation, much as it has for Gabigol’s compatriot Felipe Anderson since his summer transfer.
The 22-year old’s playing style also appeared appropriate for English football. At his best, Gabriel is skilful, powerful and mobile and can play anywhere across the front line. Under Pellegrini, West Ham have at times employed a 4-3-3 formation without a traditional number 9, and the central role in such a system would suit him well.
As it is, we will not have the pleasure of watching his story unfold in claret and blue. Flamengo, one of only two Brazilian clubs with anywhere near the resources to make such a move, have agreed to pay his wages in full for the duration of 2019.
The Brazilian domestic game is a comfortable and productive hunting ground for Gabigol and if he scores the goals to lead Flamengo to Rio de Janeiro state championship glory in the first months of this year, he could well be recalled into the Brazil squad for July’s Copa América.
There is no doubt that the tournament would have been weighing heavily on his mind as he made the decision about his next step and the certainty of minutes on the pitch at Flamengo would have been attractive.
West Ham, however, would have been a far more adventurous option at this crucial stage in his career.
It is hard to predict what 2019 will bring, but expect to hear Gabigol's name mentioned again as the January 2020 window approaches. Next time, hopefully, bureaucracy will prove less of a stumbling block.
A risk he may be, but whether a move were successful or not, Gabriel Barbosa would be a fascinating addition to the Premier League.