Valencia defender Gabriel Paulista will never forget the moment he knew he’d arrived in English football. It was his Arsenal debut against Everton.
‘I was up against Romelu Lukaku and there was a 50-50 early on,’ he says. ‘I went into this challenge hard, down on the ground and came away with the ball and suddenly the noise in the Emirates, it was as if I had scored.’
He went on to play 64 times for the club and when they sold him — for only £10million — it seemed his career had peaked. The kid from the Sao Paulo favela had overcome a harrowing childhood to reach the Premier League and it had ended inside two years.
Valencia defender Gabriel is preparing to face his former side Arsenal in the Europa League
But the 28-year-old is now the defensive linchpin who has taken Valencia to the Spanish Cup final and is facing his former club Arsenal in Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final first leg.
Gabriel has already shared a joke with his great friend and fellow Brazilian David Luiz that after beating Arsenal, Valencia will meet Chelsea in the final.
But, sitting high in the main stand of the club’s Paterna training ground, he remembers being in awe of Arsene Wenger back in 2015.
He pretends to shake with fear and widens his eyes as he says: ‘I was very nervous. Wenger has a long history in football. He had been at the club 20 years. But he calmed me down and gave me confidence. He is a coach who puts his arm round you.’
The young Gabriel will have needed an arm round him at times since leaving his native Sao Paulo.
The Brazilian defender recalled how the police took his brother’s life at the age of 21
He says the tattoo on the back of his leg — a football in the foreground and a train track disappearing into the distance — reminds him of his incredible journey. ‘There were a lot of family problems and all the obstacles that I have overcome are like different victories along the way,’ he says.
The youngest of five siblings, he lost his brother when he was growing up. ‘The police took his life when he was 21,’ he says.
‘He wanted to be a footballer but he took a wrong turn and did some bad things.’
A friend had started a team in the Taca Sao Paulo — Brazil’s most important youth cup — and he called Gabriel’s mother and told her he wanted to give her son the chance to become a footballer that his tragic brother never had.
‘My brother always served as a lesson and a motivation for me,’ he says. ‘I give everything on the pitch for my family and to be an example to my son.’
Gabriel clashed with Diego Costa in 2015 but insists that he is similar to the Spain striker
If Wenger became a father figure then Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker became like brothers at Arsenal. He was sticking up for Koscielny when he fell into Diego Costa’s trap during a 2-0 defeat by Chelsea, and was sent off by referee Mike Dean.
He was struggling with his English at the time, and recalls: ‘I would just about manage a “sorry, sorry,” when talking to referees.
‘I couldn’t talk my way out of things. The referee spoke to me and Diego Costa and I didn’t understand anything.’
Costa had swiped Koscielny round the face and then barged him to the ground. Gabriel had stepped in, but then stepped back on to Costa’s toe, earning that red card.
He is laughing about it now and counts Costa as a friend. ‘There was a later match in the Emirates and after I was talking to David Luiz and Diego came over and started playing with my son and talking to my wife,’ he says.
‘The thing is, Costa is a…’ there’s a pause before he continues: ‘I’m the same. Once I’m on the pitch I change. I’m like another person. A lot of players change when they cross the line. And Diego off the pitch is someone with a big heart.
‘If I didn’t know him then I would also say, “This guy is crazy, he’s a bad character”. But really he’s an incredible guy.’
There are no regrets about his spell at the Emirates.
‘It’s a dream for a player to go to a club that big,’ says Gabriel. ‘My agent asked me if I wanted to play for Arsenal and what was I going to say?’
His current coach Marcelino knew him from previous experience at Villarreal and re-signed him. ‘The loyalty works both ways,’ he says.
‘He knows he can rely on me. They can split my face open in one game and the next game I will be there available to play. Coaches like that.’
He hopes that his final game of the season is a rematch with Luiz.
Gabriel’s current coach at Valencia, Marcelino, knew the centre back from Villarreal
He has already joked with friend David Luiz about facing Chelsea in the Europa League final
He smiles: ‘During the international break I went to his house and I was joking with him, “If we get a Valencia v Chelsea final you have to let us win because you’ve already got your Champions League and your Europa League, and your Premier League.”’
Gabriel’s five-year-old son Miguel, who is also on that tattoo, sports a Luiz hairstyle — but he’s his dad’s biggest fan.
‘He sent me a message the other day on his mum’s telephone saying that he wants to walk out on to the pitch with me,’ he says.
There is a child-like joy about Gabriel too.
‘Going back to the Emirates will be special,’ he says.
But you know with Gabriel there will be no love lost once he crosses the white line.
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