AT some point in the early weeks of 2019, Lille defender Gabriel went to the office of head coach Christophe Galtier and knocked on his door.
Gabriel had been at the club for two years and was still to make a single league start. The previous season, he had been unsuccessfully loaned out to first Troyes and then Dinamo Zagreb. Upon returning to Lille in the summer of 2018, he found himself fifth in the centre-back hierarchy behind captain Adama Soumaoro, new signing José Fonte, Edgar Ié and Yves Dabila. He told Galtier that despite keeping his head down and working hard in training, he felt that he was not being given the opportunities he deserved.
Galtier, though, had been impressed by the youngster’s quiet determination and over the weeks that followed, the stars belatedly began to align in the Brazilian’s favour. After Ié was loaned out to Nantes and Dabila lost form, opportunity knocked for Gabriel when Soumaoro was suspended for a Ligue 1 game at Guingamp in February 2019. He came into the team and has not looked back.
Prior to the suspension of the Ligue 1 season due to the coronavirus outbreak, Gabriel had established himself as a first-choice pick at Lille and was widely felt to be one of the best centre-backs in the division. The Brazil Under-20 international has been strongly linked with Everton and Chelsea and is also reported to have attracted interest from Italy and Spain. In Galtier’s eyes, the acclaim is richly deserved.
“Gaby worked hard and in silence,” the Lille coach said last month. “He saw that he had huge potential and he was able to seize his first opportunity. It angered him not to be playing. While he was stewing over his situation, he worked a lot. He’s an example to all youngsters. How many players do you see today who don’t work when they’re not in the squad?”
Gabriel dos Santos Magalhães – his full name – grew up in the Pirituba district of São Paulo, northwest of the city centre, and spent time on the books at São Paulo FC before leaving to join Avaí at the age of 14. The move took him to the city of Florianopolis, 700 kilometres away down Brazil’s south-east coast, and he struggled with homesickness, returning almost immediately to the family home. His father, Marcelo, was a delivery driver and told Gabriel that if he didn’t want to play football, he would have to come to work with him. Upon which Gabriel promptly returned to Avaí.
He was recruited by Lille in February 2017 after making only 21 Série B appearances for Avaí, having been spotted by the French club’s Brazilian former scout André Martins. He made his debut the following April, getting an eight-minute run-out in a 3-0 home win over Guingamp, but it was the only first-team football he would play that season. When Marcelo Bielsa arrived as head coach that summer, Gabriel got the impression that he was not going to get much more game-time and asked sporting director Luís Campos to be sent out on loan.
The hope that temporarily leaving Lille would allow him to rack up more first-team experience proved to be a forlorn one. He made just one appearance for Ligue 1 strugglers Troyes over the season’s first half and fared no better at Croatian title-chasers Dinamo Zagreb during the campaign’s second half, again appearing only once in a first-team league game. It meant that he had done little to advance his cause by the time he returned to Lille in the summer of 2018, but Campos urged him not to go out on loan again, telling him instead to stay and fight for his place.
Gabriel’s full league debut for Lille, at Guingamp in February last year, briefly threatened to become a disaster. Inside the game’s early stages, he slipped over, fouled an opponent right on the edge of Lille’s box and then almost sliced a clearance into his own net. But he came through it, Galtier’s side won 2-0 and Gabriel ended up resisting Soumaoro’s return from suspension to nail down a first-team place, scoring his first goal for the club with a header in Lille’s 5-1 demolition of Paris Saint-Germain.
Despite being a competent French-speaker, Gabriel has been aided by the presence of multiple fellow Lusophones in the Lille squad. The biggest influence has come from his centre-back partner Fonte, the veteran Portugal international, whose calm authority has helped Gabriel to find his feet.
“He inspires me,” Gabriel said of their partnership last year. “He tells me to be calm and to keep it simple. It’s like when you’re making rice. It’s more harmonious when you serve it with vegetables than on its own.”
Strong, well-built and 6’ 3” tall, Gabriel is dominant in the air and uses his body well in the tackle, frequently dispossessing opposition forwards by simply stepping across their path when they are in possession and taking control of the ball. He has decent footwork and an impressive passing range, regularly pinging 60-yard passes over the tops of opposition defences for Lille strikers Victor Osimhen and Loïc Rémy to run onto. The fact that he is left-footed has only served to further whet the appetites of Europe’s major clubs.
“He has lots of character for a young guy of 22,” said Lille president Gérard Lopez. “Despite his height, he’s hyper-quick and he covers his full-back well. He won more aerial duels than any other player during the first half of the season.”
Gabriel signed a new contract in January, extending his commitment to Lille until 2023, but he is unlikely to stay in northern France for long. After selling Nicolas Pépé, Rafael Leão and Thiago Mendes for a small fortune last year, another bumper payday beckons for Lille.