Club World Cup: Gabriel Barbosa has all it takes to be a huge star

At the end of Flamengo’s last home game of the season, Gabriel Barbosa wandered over to salute the hardcore support behind one of the goals at the Maracana.

In their hands, the fans held a huge flag adorned with a picture of their star forward, arms up, biceps flexed; the goal celebration the Flamengo faithful have seen so many times in 2019.

Beneath the picture, the words; ‘Hoje tem gol do Gabigol.’ Today there’ll be a goal from Gabigol. 

They were right, there had been. His 43rd of a magnificent 2019.

This particular banner was huge, professionally made. But at every game this season, Rio de Janeiro’s home of football has been full of corrugated cardboard signs, knocked together on kitchen tables, bearing the same slogan.

It is the fans’ way of celebrating a player who has made an incredible impact in his twelve months in Rio, whose charisma and brilliant displays have seen him become the most popular player at Brazil’s most popular club.

It was also a moment of mixed emotions.

There was the warm glow that comes from a near-perfect season; the treble of the Rio state championship, Brazilian title and Copa Libertadores had been completed two weeks prior.

There was gratitude from the player to supporters and club; Gabigol, as he is known, has been reborn this season.

There was expectation; on the horizon was a trip to the Club World Cup, a tournament held in high esteem in South America.

But there was sadness too; for that might have been the last time they see him pull on the famous red and black hoops at the Maracana.

He is still only 23, but it seems an entire career’s worth of ups and downs have been packed into the seven years since Gabriel made his debut with Santos.

That first appearance was in Neymar’s last game before moving from Santos to Barcelona. The symbolism was deliberate; he was meant to be the next superstar off the production line at a club that has churned out so many wonderful talents.

And for a while, he looked set to fulfil that promise. He managed more than twenty goals in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons, earning the moniker Gabigol. Still just a teenager, he was thrust into the Brazilian national team’s problematic centre-forward spot just in time for the 2016 Copa America.

Rumours were rife of a move to a European giant and Inter Milan eventually came in, spending €27.5 million to take him to San Siro.

But there, things quickly unravelled. Short on opportunities and confidence, his nickname in the Inter dressing room became Gabi-no-gol.

There were rumours of poor behaviour, too. At Santos, he had always been the special one, perhaps shaping an attitude that was not conducive, at least at that moment in his life, to succeeding at the highest level.

A six-month stint at Benfica only brought one goal in five games and more off-field issues.
It was then that his old club offered him a lifeline. Discarded as quickly as he was picked up by Internazionale, he returned to Santos on loan.

Back in his comfort zone, his confidence visibly grew and by the end of 2018 he had won the award for the top scorer in both Brazilian league and cup.

Most thought he was ready for a return to Europe. Not to Inter – they had already given up hope and brought in Lautaro Martinez – but perhaps to a medium-sized club where he would be under a little less pressure to perform.

Instead, Flamengo offered to pay all of his wages to take him on loan and keep him in Brazil for one more year.

The decision was inspired. He hit the ground running, creating a great rapport with fans and scoring some stunning goals.

The pick of the bunch came against his old club Santos in a Serie A game in September, a direct confrontation between first and second in the table. Gabriel lobbed the ‘keeper from 25 yards to give Flamengo the advantage in the title race, one that they would not relinquish.

But the real crowning moment of this redemptive story came on November 23. In the 88th minute of the Copa Libertadores final, his side trailed 1-0. Five minutes later a Gabigol brace had turned the game and sealed Flamengo’s first continental title since 1981.

In the final of the Club World Cup on Saturday, he will, as they say in Brazil, have the chance to close a magical season “with a golden key”.

But what next? Can he use this success as a springboard to another chance at the very top of the world game?

It is certainly what he hopes for. Flamengo would love to keep him, but when asked whether he will stay, he is always evasive, betraying his desire for another move.

But at 23, he is already at the upper end of what most European clubs consider a good age to take players across the Atlantic and there doesn’t appear to be any interest from the super-elite clubs that consistently populate the Champions League last 16.

Instead, there are links to the likes of Schalke, Crystal Palace, Newcastle and especially West Ham.

That reluctance on the part of the very biggest clubs can perhaps be explained by three factors.
Firstly, the behavioural issues persist. Just after his second goal in the Libertadores final against River Plate, he was sent off for the second time in a week. No player in Brazil has picked up more cards in 2019.

Second is a lack of positional flexibility. Many of Europe’s top teams like to play with a lone striker supported by two wide attackers, but Gabigol is at his best as the second striker in a front two, able to work in the space created by his partner.

And, despite his incredible stats this year (there have been 11 assists to add to those 43 goals) there are still some clear technical deficiencies in his game. He struggles with his back to goal, he is weak in the air and is extremely reliant on his left foot. Against the world’s best, that might make him too easy to nullify.

Still, that potential is hard to ignore. If he does well against Liverpool on Saturday, the temptation to take a punt on him may be too much for a club from one of Europe’s big five leagues to resist.
If someone does hand him that second chance, they’ll just have to hope that he has matured enough to take it.

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