Early in 2019, while working on his squad at Chapecoense, Claudinei Oliveira, the club’s head coach, picked up his phone and gave a call to a former protégé.
“Gabriel Magalhaes wasn’t playing much with Lille, so I wanted to check if he would like to join me,” he recalls. Indeed, during the first half of the 2018-19 campaign in France, the Brazilian centre-back had made only two appearances. And yet, when answering Oliveira, he preferred to turn down the invitation and fight for a place. He hasn’t looked back since.
Fast forward to the present day, and Gabriel’s rapid upward trajectory has led him to become a must-pick for Arsenal, a key cog in defence alongside Ben White. His unbeaten run when starting for the club may have ended at 15 games with defeat at Liverpool a fortnight ago, but he was back to his imperious best in the victory against Newcastle last week. Manchester United may be energised since the departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but even their glittering array of attacking talents will not find it easy against Gabriel on Thursday night.
It is not simply on the field that Gabriel has revealed his formidable presence. It emerged this week that the 23-year-old had fought off baseball bat-wielding intruders who were trying to steal his car and watch at his London home in August.
Watch as Arsenal defender Gabriel fights off a baseball-bat wielding thief who attempted to steal his Mercedes from his garage…
🎥 | Courtesy of Metropolitan Police
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) December 1, 2021
Gabriel, however, is not easily cowed. Hailing from the working-class district of Pirituba in Sao Paulo, he started at a football school called Tolentino in Osasco, on the outskirts of the town.
He used to play as a left-back but Ze Silva, his first coach, was not convinced and decided to train him as a centre-half instead. He was an instant hit, and caught the eyes of multiple teams.
Among them was Avai, now plying their trade in Brazil’s second tier. The only thing separating him from a trial was a 12-hour bus trip to Florianopolis – a daunting prospect for a 13-year-old to undertake on his own, and one which almost ended in disaster.
“We couldn’t travel with him, so he went alone.,” explains his father, Marcelo, who worked as a delivery driver. “But the main problem was that the bus apparently made a lot of stops along the way and he went down to the toilet in
one of them, thinking that they had already arrived. He stayed there waiting for someone from the club to pick him up only to realise that it wasn’t the final destination.
“When he saw the bus leaving without him, he had to run after it, shouting at the driver to stop. We still laugh about it.”
Eventually, Gabriel made it to Florianopolis, but that was only the start of his struggles. He was desperately homesick, and would repeatedly call his family to complain about the cold and not getting much playing time. After just one week, he packed his things and headed back to Sao Paulo.
It threatened to curtail his promising career, and might well have done had it not been for his father. Despite the incessant phone calls from Avai, urging his son to return to their academy, Marcelo decided not to try and change his mind. Instead, he gave him a speech that became a turning point in Gabriel’s life.
“I had a small truck back then and couldn’t stop working, so, when he came back home, I told him, ‘I can’t do this anymore. A footballer’s life is like this – if you want it, you will have to deal with the distance from us and suffer a bit. You need to have a goal and pursue it.’”
The boy listened and, the following week, he returned to Avai – this time, for good.
He quickly climbed through the ranks, marking his first-team debut with a goal against Gremio in January 2016. There were still difficult moments – not least losing a close friend, Lucas, but deciding to still play the same day – but his performances inevitably drew admiring glances from European scouts.
By the beginning of 2017, he was representing Brazil at the Under-20 South American championship in Ecuador. That group included some big names like Richarlison (Everton), Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa), Dodo (Shakhtar Donetsk), David Neres (Ajax) and Lucas Paqueta (Lyon), but it was Gabriel who was the first to make the move to Europe, after Lille made their move.
Again, Gabriel struggled early on, failing to make a single Ligue 1 start for two years – hence Oliveira’s enquiry about bringing him back to Brazil.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect him to return to Brazil, but I had to try,” Oliveira smiles. “We had worked together at Avai in 2016. The potential was there. I remember that when we faced Atletico Goianiense in the Serie B that season, Barcelona scouts came to see him play, but, like the rest of the team, he had a bad game. We lost 3-0 that afternoon.”
When his opportunity at Lille finally arrived in Feb 2019, however, he was away and within a year had become one of Europe’s most promising left-footed centre-backs. Strong in the tackle and excellent distributor, Gabriel was in high-demand when Arsenal ultimately beat competition from the likes of Napoli and Everton for his signature.
“I knew he would achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer, but I had never imagined he would get this far and reach this level. It didn’t cross my mind,” Marcelo says with a chuckle. “When he moved to France, I was already very pleased. It wasn’t easy at the beginning and even his agent had some doubts because it’s difficult for a young boy to adapt there. But he was strong and overcame those initial struggles.
“We couldn’t be happier now. London is a dream.”
That 12-hour bus trip has undoubtedly paid off.