In these times of vacas magras (“thin cows”) for Brazil, nowhere has the Seleção’s fall from grace been more evident than in the striker position. The immovable object that is Fred and the perennially misfiring Jô were quickly put out to pasture after the World Cup, to be followed soon after by a rogue’s gallery of Diego Tardelli, Luiz Adriano, Robinho, Roberto Firmino, Hulk and most recently 36-year-old Santos forward Ricardo Oliveira.
None have convinced, with Oliveira being perhaps the most dispiriting case, revealing as it did Brazilian soccer’s vainglorious delusions about the quality of its domestic game – scoring goals amidst the lowly standards of the Campeonato Brasileiro is a long way from striking fear into the hearts of international defenders.
Worryingly, if fit, Oliveira would likely have been Brazil’s first choice at the Copa America. In his absence, rather like the race for Republican Party presidential candidate, yet another underwhelming candidate has been wheeled up to the podium. Benfica’s 32-year-old forward Jonas is a decent enough goal sniffer, but unlikely to make anyone forget the likes of Ronaldo or Romario.
If there is a silver lining to all this gloom, however, it is that the lack of effective options among the senior players has allowed youth to be given a chance. Step forward Brazil’s latest hope for a cure to its striking ills – 19-year-old Santos forward Gabriel Barbosa, or “Gabigol.”
A pacy and technically gifted left-footed forward, Gabriel has starred on both flanks for Santos in recent seasons, forming a neat triumvirate with Oliveira and another Seleção hopeful, talented midfielder Lucas Lima. But with over 20 goals in each of the last two seasons, he also has the kind of eye for goals that, playing as a false 9, could make him an ideal foil for Neymar, who is far too often expected to do it all on his own when playing for the national team.
The Neymar comparisons are as inevitable as they are unhelpful – Gabriel emerged from the same Santos’ talent factory as the Barcelona star.
The Neymar comparisons are as inevitable as they are unhelpful – Gabriel emerged from the same Santos’ talent factory as the Barcelona star, and was tipped for the top from an early age in the same way. The two players even appear to share the same ideal position, cutting in from the left side of attack. And Gabriel seems certain to follow Neymar to a big European club, be it Barcelona or elsewhere, in the near future.
Rather than his similarity to other players, however, it is Gabriel’s rarity value that makes him stand out. For a long time now, Brazil has specialized more in producing growling defensive midfielders such as Fernandinho and up front, eager if ultimately naive runners like Hulk or that now-forgotten hopeful from the 2014 World Cup, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Bernard.
Socio-economic improvements, the squeezing of urban spaces and the emergence of organized soccer schools and five-a-side centers, has punctured the myth that every favela dirt pitch is home to two or three future creative attacking superstars.
Brazil still produces good players – the Champions League rosters are packed with émigrés from cities from Rio de Janeiro to Recife – but these days they are more often than not seven out of ten performers rather than the elevens or twelves of the past. The dreary performances of the Seleção in recent years are testament to that. A rare attacking talent such as Gabriel, then, must be cherished and nurtured and coached to fruition.
Gabriel’s rise has not been entirely smooth – he suffered a significant dip in form with Santos in the first half of 2015.
The worry is whether Dunga and the rest of Brazilian soccer’s chaotic coaching scene will be able to perform such nurturing. Gabriel’s rise has not been entirely smooth – he suffered a significant dip in form with Santos in the first half of 2015 and was poor as Brazil struggled at the South American U-20 Championship in the same year, before being left out of the squad completely for the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
He since appears to have matured, however, emphasizing the importance of being surrounded by talented, experienced teammates and coaching stability at club level – his manager at Santos, Dorival Junior recently highlighted how much Gabriel had grown, identifying his “real maturation as a player, concerned with the composition of the team and winning the ball back.”
Such maturity seems to be reflected off the pitch as well. Although arrogance was rumored to be a factor behind his difficulties with Brazil’s U-20 sides, he does not share Neymar’s love for the ostentatious, and is a member of the prayer group of Ricardo Oliveira, a pastor when not playing soccer, at Santos.
He is now enjoying the fruits of his efforts, becoming a regular in Brazil’s U-23 side ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics (he describes the thought of playing in the tournament as his “biggest dream”). He’s earned a call-up to the senior squad, for whom he scored his first goal, a neat left-foot finish, against Panama in a pre-Copa America warm-up friendly. His run to embrace Dunga in celebration showed that the under-fire coach has at least one admirer in Brazil.
Now, he will hope to continue his international progress at the Copa America, in a Brazil side that looks a little sprightlier than it has in recent months. Players such as Renato Augusto and Casemiro are more comfortable on the ball than the likes of Fernandinho and Luiz Gustavo, and Philippe Coutinho looked promising at times in the 0-0 draw against Ecuador.
Gabriel featured for the last 30 minutes of that game and now, in his first appearance in front of a global audience, he will be hungry for more. Brazil’s rich tradition of bountiful attacking talent and a feverish wish to reclaim the glories of the past means that the country is no stranger to overhyping its youngsters as the next Ronaldo or Neymar. It remains to be seen whether Gabriel, who so far has shone only in the limited confines of the Brazilian domestic game, will one day merit comparison with such greats.