He was meant to be the poster boy for Inter’s return to greatness and the Nerazzurri’s natural heir to Ronaldo; instead, he has become a figure of fun and a source of profound embarrassment for everybody associated with the club.
It would be fair to say that Gabriel Barbosa’s career hasn’t exactly taken the direction that most were expecting it to take in the summer of 2016.
Last August, ‘Gabigol’ played a starring role in the Brazilian national team’s historic gold medal triumph at the Olympic football tournament in Rio de Janeiro, starting each of the Seleção’s matches and scoring two goals on their road to glory. He was sharing an attack with the likes of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus and basking in the media spotlight that came with the position, while numerous top European clubs were eagerly chasing his signature for the coming season.
Fast forward 14 months however, and the outlook is slightly different; once the man that everybody wants, he has become the man that nobody wants. At least, that is what reports in the Portuguese media this week would have you believe.
After a disastrous debut season with Inter in which he played just 183 minutes of football between Serie A and the Coppa Italia, it appears Gabriel (I don’t think we can call him ‘Gabigol’ with any degree of sincerity or justification anymore) has been unceremoniously rejected by another top European club and will soon be on the lookout for a third footballing home in less than two years.
According to daily sports paper O Jogo, Benfica are considering curtailing the season-long loan that they agreed with the Nerazzurri for Gabriel back in August, having been unimpressed with what they’ve seen from him during his time in Portugal so far.
The Primeira Liga champions signed the 21 year-old from on transfer deadline day in a loan deal worth €1.6m, which also included an option to purchase the player permanently for €25m at the end of the 2017-18 season.
During his first two months at the club, however, Gabriel has played just 148 minutes under head coach Rui Vitoria after failing to stake a serious claim for a place in the first XI, and is receiving less and less consideration as the campaign goes on.
The Brazilian was immediately called up to Benfica’s match-day squad upon his arrival for their match against Portimonense on 9 September, yet remained an unused substitute as the Eagles ran out 2-1 winners.
Over the following week he made his first two official appearances for the club, against Boavista in the league and against CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League - but on both occasions he was only afforded 13 minutes’ playing time off the bench, and on both occasions failed to make a positive impact, squandering a glorious chance (see below) to score an equalising goal in the match with Boavista.
Since then Gabriel has not played a single minute in either competition; in the league he has been glued to the subs bench for the last four games, while for Benfica’s last two Champions League matches he hasn’t even been included in Rui Vitoria’s squad.
Aside from the aforementioned cameos, his only other two appearances for the Eagles so far have been in low-profile cup matches (albeit both from the start) - 63 minutes against Braga in the Taça da Liga (the Portuguese League Cup), and 59 minutes against Olhanense in the third round of the Taça de Portugal (the Portuguese Cup).
He did manage to score his first goal for Benfica in the match against Olhanense, shown in the video below, but it goes without saying that these were not the games that Gabriel went to Portugal to play in - or indeed the games that Inter sent Gabriel to Portugal to play in. He went there to be a main character, but has ended up as more of an extra. (Sound familiar?)
He hasn’t just been in the headlines for his lack of game-time, however. Over the past few weeks Gabi has also been involved in two unbecoming incidents that betray the frustration he is experiencing on the sidelines at the moment, as well as contradicting claims at the start of October that he was ‘very happy’ to be at Benfica and not at all regretful of his choice to move there.
On the eve of Benfica’s humiliating 5-0 defeat away to Basel in the Champions League he was filmed having an altercation with centre-back Jardel during training, while in a recent league match against Aves he was caught shooting daggers at coach Rui Vitoria after being ignored yet again. Vitoria told Gabriel to start warming up during the second half before choosing to bring other players off the bench instead, which did not go down at all well.
Despite frequent claims from both him and his agent Wagner Ribeiro that everything is going swimmingly, it’s become clear that Benfica have just as little time for Gabriel as Inter did last season, and there are few signs of anything changing in the near future - hence this week’s rumours that he will be sent back to his parent club six months ahead of schedule.
Were that to actually happen, however, the chances of him remaining with Inter for the second half of the season are extremely slim, even considering the fact that Luciano Spalletti’s squad is relatively short on numbers up front. It is far more likely that Walter Sabatini and Piero Ausilio would set about finding a new destination for the forward, having categorically ruled him out of their plans for the coming season over the summer.
If no offers from European clubs arose, however, there is always the possibility that he could return to his native Brazil. According to a report in Lance!, former club Santos have not closed the door on Gabriel and would be happy to resign him should he decide to return to his home country.
As of yet they haven’t made any official contact with either Inter or Benfica over a deal, but given the probable lack of suitors for him in January it’s not completely implausible that Inter might end up going to them in an attempt to offload him. Having said that, it’s worth reiterating that Benfica have yet to make a definitive decision on the player’s future - they could still choose to keep him until the end of the season.
In reality though it makes little difference whether or not Gabriel does return to Inter in January, because if he doesn’t he’ll be returning in June anyway - Benfica will clearly have no intention of exercising their option to buy in the summer as things stand, so either way we’ll end up getting him back. At which point he becomes our problem again - and yes, ‘problem’ is most definitely the right word here.
Perhaps a miracle will occur between now and May and Gabriel will explode like he promised to do back in the summer of 2016, convincing Benfica to pay the €25m they’re allowed to pay for him and taking him off Inter’s hands for good. But it looks decidedly improbable at this moment in time.
What looks far more probable is that we’ll be lumbered with him again - as well as the task of finding him a new destination for the 2018-19 campaign. Spalletti and co. are unlikely to change his mind on the player easily after having spent the entirety of last summer looking for buyers.
Aside from that one glorious afternoon at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, when he scored the winning goal in the match against Bologna, Inter’s decision to sign Gabigol has caused the club nothing but pain, humiliation and a huge amount of expense (€30m we paid for him! THIRTY!), and unfortunately the pain, humiliation and expense shows no sign of abating any time soon.
Friday 22 September 2016 feels like quite a long time ago...
There’s a popular Italian phrase that springs to mind in moments like this - chi dimentica è complice.
He who forgets is complicit...