This Is for My Two Families

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

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These last weeks I have been going kinda crazy.

I’m not even going to lie about it. This is what being in contention for the Brazil World Cup squad does to you, man. We all knew Tite was going to pick 26 players, right? You are supposed to stay calm and wait for the call. 

But I have been doing all kinds of calculations. My head has been spinning. I’ve been like, So how many forwards will he take? 

Who is available? Does he need me? 

Will he take me??

Man, it’s been exhausting. I might as well have sat at home with a piece of chalk and a blackboard, counting the players, doing the math!!

When Tite did call me up, I was so emotional. , you have no idea … I felt like I was living in some kind of parallel fantasy world. I owe so much to so many people, especially my parents. But I want to start by thanking my second family — Arsenal — because without you guys none of this would have been possible. 

I thank God that I came to Arsenal in 2019. I really believe that things happen for a reason, and I’m so happy here. It’s funny to look back now, because I could so easily have ended up somewhere else.

You see, I used to be part of this project at Manchester United. I was actually there for several trials. I even met many of the senior players. When I was 17, I had my last session there, so I went back to Brazil waiting for news. 

One day my dad called me into the living room. He had spoken to my agent and … well, United had said no. 

Not just, “No, for this year.”

But, “No, we don’t want him. At all.”

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

To be honest, I was shaken. They had seen me play several times, and I was sure they were going to sign me, you know?

A few weeks later I got another trial, at Barcelona. I spent 15 days there. They didn’t want me either. That was easier to accept, because it was just one trial. Still….

I remember sitting down with my dad and saying, “What are we going to do?”

You cannot really understand my story without knowing about my dad, João. He is as invested in my career as I am. When I was a toddler, he decided to take me to a trial at Corinthians when I turned six years old. Just to make sure you get this, that is one of the biggest clubs in Brazil. Who does that? He had wanted to turn pro but it hadn’t worked out, and now he wanted me to make it. Dads are supposed to read their sons bedtime stories. My dad kept saying, “When you turn six, I’ll take you….” 

Hahaha. He didn’t even know whether I would be good enough. All we had done was play on a worn-down court near our home in Guarulhos, São Paulo. The goals didn’t even have nets. I’d jump on my dad’s back, we’d walk down to the court and when we got there I’d say, “Dad, let’s dribble! Let’s play!” 

He would be like, “No, no. We’re gonna train your left foot.”

Left foot!!! I had not even turned six! He was serious. He was the goalie, he threw the ball out and I would shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. 

Ten shots … a hundred shots … a thousand shots…. 

Man, I’d always complain about it. “Come on, Dad….” What a pain!

I just wanted to have fun, you know? I wasn’t going around saying, I will become a professional. I mean, maybe when I was watching the World Cup, I was dreaming about it. When the flag is painted on the front of your house, when you have 15 family members in your backyard, the TV is rolled out, there are balloons, fireworks, honking horns, your cousins are running up the stairs and your uncle is at the barbecue … how can you not? You are watching the Selecão and you’re thinking, Imagine wearing that shirt at a World Cup.

Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty

But mostly I just wanted to play. My mum, Elizabete, said I was a “crazy kid running around everywhere”. When I was 10 or 11, I’d play at Corinthians, my school and other lower-category clubs where my dad had friends. Sometimes I’d play three games in one day. My parents had to give up their weekends to drive me around. They sacrificed so much, they barely had lives of their own. 

But if I had played badly?? Pô … those drives home would be long

Man, my dad talks a lot. He likes to say that I only took 10% of his potential. He’s like, “There’s no video, no photo, you can’t say it’s not true.” Apparently he ran a lot, so I get that from him. He used to tell me, “There are days that you will not play well, when the ball will bounce off your shin, but if you run you can still give something to your team.” That was a good lesson. I always did listen to him. 

But he was constantly on my case. If my parents had come to watch me play in places like Mogi Mirim, we’d have to drive back for two hours. He would go on forever.

He never swore or yelled or anything. It was more about the details. 

“Gabriel, that thing you did, you should have done this and this….”

I didn’t even know what to study … I was just hoping plan A would work.

Gabriel Martinelli

And I knew if I had played badly! I was already sad. I didn’t need anyone to tell me.

“Careless, Gabriel, careless….” 

Gah! Sometimes I pretended to be asleep. He would still go on. Then after an hour, silence. Beautiful, perfect silence … until my mum would start.

“Gabriel, your shooting has no power. You have to hit it harder.”

I was like, “Oh, Mum, for God’s sake!! Have I not heard enough already??”

One time I told my dad, “Hey, every game you are like this.” He would explain that he was doing it for my own good. But the next time I’d get angry again, hahaha. 

When I was 14, he got a new job in Itu, so I had to leave Corinthians. That day I cried a lot. I ended up in Ituano, a much smaller club, but by now I realised that I really could become a footballer. I already had an agent, Rafael, who is still with me. But my dad said I needed a plan B. My mum even wanted me to go to college. She still does. 

I didn’t even know what to study … I was just hoping plan A would work.

Years later, in 2018, United said they didn’t want me. Luckily, soon after that I was doing really well in the Copinha — the famous São Paulo Youth Cup. New offers were coming in. When Rafael told me that Arsenal wanted me, I didn’t think twice. I asked Dad, “What do you think?”

He said, “Let’s go to London.”

The best move we ever made. 

When I came to London in 2019, I had no clue about anything. I couldn’t even sleep. My parents and Rafael came with me at the start, but sometimes I had to sleep alone in the house … I’ve never been able to do it. As a kid I always slept with my parents, because we only had one bedroom. When we moved to Itu, I was afraid of sleeping alone. Even now I need someone in the house. Once I slept there alone, and I ended up spending the whole night on the phone with my girlfriend. I’m not telling this as a joke. Even during the day I don’t like being alone. 

I couldn’t drive either. You have to speak English to get a licence, and when I could speak it well enough the pandemic postponed all tests. I spent two years catching rides or ordering Ubers. You know who saved me? Emi Martínez. What a guy! He lived 10 minutes from my house, so he’d pick me up to take me to training and to the stadium. Sometimes we’d also pick up Dani Ceballos. Emi always tried to help everyone. Once, I even spent New Year’s Eve at his house with his family. 

I also got a lot of help from David Luiz, another sensational guy. Without people like this my start would have been so much harder.

I took English classes three times a week. I watched movies with my girlfriend. I love her, but man, she gets on my nerves! Even though she’s from Rio, she always wants to watch in English and I want to watch in Portuguese. 

She’s like, “You’re learning English and you want to watch them dubbed??” But when you’re used to the voices in Portuguese, English is just weird. 

We can watch one in Portuguese and she’ll say, “You know … this isn’t even the real voice of the actor.”

I’m like, “Yes it is. I’m used to this voice.”

She’s like “That’s not the voice! The real voice is in English. They don’t speak Portuguese!”

I’ve also had help from my mum, although for other things. The day before I scored that goal at Stamford Bridge, I asked her, “Tomorrow I’m gonna score a goal. How should I celebrate it?”

She was like, “Stop bugging me kid, I’m cooking!” Hahaha. 

I was like, “What if I do this?” I crossed my arms.

She was like, “That’s the one.”

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

But the moment I really needed help was when I got my knee injury in the summer of 2020. I was training when I felt pain in my knee. The doctors told me I had damaged the cartilage. 

Five months out. 

I broke down in tears. Couldn’t believe it. I had sprained my ankle before, but this was half a year without doing what I love. I couldn’t even put weight on my foot. But after a week I was like, “Hey, there’s no point in crying. Let’s move on.”

I’m so happy that I took my chance when I got it.

Gabriel Martinelli

I actually improved my English a lot in this period. I was working with our physio, Jordan, and he does not come with subtitles. There is no dubbing option. We spent so many days together, and I felt a lot of pain, physically and emotionally. But I also matured a lot, and I learned a lot about my body, my mind and, well, English verbs. 

After one month I could put weight on my foot. That was a big victory. 

Soon I could bend my knee a little more. Another win. 

In December I was back. So what happened? I got injured again!! On my first start, the Man City second goalie, Zack Steffen, flew into me. I was rolling around in pain, and I had to go out. Of course I was worried. Luckily it wasn’t serious. A few weeks later I was about to start against Newcastle, and I twisted my ankle in the warmup. Another week out. So my comeback was not exactly smooth. 

Mikel has always been great with me. When I wasn’t playing as much last season, I went to his office, and he reassured me that I would get my chance. I just want to play every game, you know? Even when I came off against Forest the other day, I was like, “Ah, I’d have loved to score another goal….” But we have a lot of games. I understand. 

I’m so happy that I took my chance when I got it. I really love this club. The squad is like a big family. We all have so much respect for each other. If you see us in training you’ll understand why we’re playing well, because even in a simple passing game nobody wants to lose. At home we haven’t dropped a point yet, because the atmosphere this season is better than ever. The opponents are always feeling the pressure at the Emirates. 

And I promise you, when you are chasing the ball, and you feel dead tired, you want to give up … and 60,000 fans are chanting all around you … you will get to that ball. The energy boost is incredible.

Actually, you remember back in August when Saliba scored that own goal at home to Leicester? He was walking back grimacing, and maybe other fans would have booed.… 

But our fans cheered. They were roaring him on. They were saying, “We are with you no matter what.”

Two minutes later, we scored.

That is Arsenal. 

Justin Setterfield/Getty

We will continue to go for the win each game, because that is what this club should do. Arsenal is not about “getting a point”.

Arsenal is not about finishing fourth. 

Arsenal is about titles. The league. The Champions League. 

That’s what the fans deserve.

Of course, I have never forgotten about my World Cup dream either. When Tite called me up to the senior squad for the first time back in March, I didn’t know what to say. He sent me a text and I swear, I must have read over my reply 20 times. I was terrified of writing something wrong. 

My debut in yellow was at the Maracanã … of all places. Surreal. I remember going into the dressing room and seeing the yellow shirt. MARTINELLI.

I sent a picture to my parents. My dad wrote back, “Great, kid.”

But I knew he was way more emotional. When we talked, he almost cried. 

So when I got called up to the World Cup squad last week, I got that magic feeling all over again. This time when my family gathers in the backyard, I’ll be on the TV screen. We’ll bring home the sixth, God willing…. 

My dad and I have much easier conversations now. He loves to talk about the past. I’ve scored five league goals this season — two with my left foot. After each one he called me. 

He was like, “You remember when we would go to the court, and you would shoot with your left leg and complain? You see? Now it’s paying off!”

What could I say? 

I guess he had a point :-)