Brazilian side Flamengo have immediately excited Copa Libertadores fans once again with a strong start to the campaign. Having played their opening two games and winning both, they have also scored seven goals, three of which coming from Superstar Gabriel Barbosa.
Once of Inter Milan, Gabriel Barbosa, ‘Gabigol’ arrived in 2016 for a deal reportedly worth around €29.5m- though only appeared nine times for Inter, scoring once. A loan move to Benfica was fruitless, playing just 165 minutes in the first half of the 2017/18 season. From here he returned to Brazil, on loan to Santos, who Inter had signed him from for the 2018 season. He went on to score 22 goals in 43 matches. This did not do enough to convince Inter to give him another chance in Serie A, and he was subsequently sent back to Brazil for a loan move to Flamengo for the 2019 season, scoring 32 in 41 games.
Famed for touching the Libertadores trophy before the final in 2019, Gabigol’s side looked to be heading to defeat by Argentine’s River Plate. Flamengo did not give in though and with two late goals from Barbosa in the 89th and 92nd minute, the Brazilian side went on to win their second Copa Libertadores title.
Quickly becoming and fan’s favourite, Flamengo ensured Barbosa signed permanently in 2020, for a deal worth €18.5m. He continued to excite and lead the side passionately and successfully from the front. He went on to score 22 goals in 34 matches and was named in the team of the year.
Barbosa made his professional debut as a 16-year-old in 2013. In his youth career with Santos, he was a prolific forward, which was where he earned the nickname Gabigol and was rewarded with his first professional contract in 2012 with a reported $50m buyout clause. He was moved into the first team’s center-forwards role permanently at Santos when Robinho’s loan deal expired with the Brazilian side.
Dubbed the next Neymar by Brazilian journalists back in 2016, Barbosa showed a mix of pace, creativity, and flair to go alongside his solid end product. Today, he continues to excite fans in Brazil as well as across South America. Physically he has become much more powerful and much stronger; he can compete with defenders for the ball well and reacts quickly to loose balls in the box. The high-pressing, attacking football played by Flamengo has suited Barbosa well and with such natural goal-scoring abilities, he will continue to get chances and success with the side.
He is not a traditional center-forward. He identifies the right times to be on the shoulder of the defender looking for runs in behind, as well as being comfortable dropping deep and linking play. His performances have once again been noticed by the Brazilian national side. Tite called him up for the first two matches of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers against Bolivia and Peru though he did not feature. He is up against strong competition in the likes of Neymar, Firmino, and Jesus for a starting role, and despite his excellent goal return, Gabigol remains down the pecking order for now.
Could a move back to Europe be on the cards for Gabigol?
His time at Inter was very unsuccessful and it could be considered he was not handled and supported well in his move. For all his talent, Gabigol has been accused of being a difficult player to manage at times and needs to feel comfortable, like all players in the club they are at. This didn’t happen at Inter and he was moved on loan quickly rather than having more time to adapt and display the abilities that Inter saw to justify the price tag.
In Sao Paolo he has been made to feel at home, Flamengo fans have created an environment where he knows his importance and their appreciation of his skill. Despite his off field indiscipline, he was recently been detained in a clandestine casino against Covid restrictions in the country, he still feels the respect given to him by the club and fans.
“The opportunity to go back to Europe will come when the time is right for me and for Flamengo,” the Gazeta Esportiva news outlet quoted the 23-year-old as saying. “Right now I feel that I’m much more prepared to face the professional and personal challenges of moving to another country,” he added.
Once regarded as one of the most promising strikers in the world, a more mature and experienced Gabigol will be on the radar of clubs across Europe. His off-field disciplinary concerns and disappointing time in Italy will always be a part of the consideration. Whichever club lures him away from Brazil in the future will undoubtedly have a world class talent, and will need to ensure they support him in adapting to the challenges in moving to another country.
For now, Barbosa will continue to lead Flamengo in their Copa Libertadores campaign and challenge once again for the Serie A title in Brazil.
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