Shoot-outs smiled on Brazil for many years. They won the USA 1994 decider, their France 1998 semi-final, their closing two ties in the Copa America 2004, and a last-four contest in the same competition three years later on penalties.
Brazilians' shoot-out confidence was, nevertheless, shattered one month ago in Argentina. Medially because of the fact they lost to Paraguay on spot-kicks. Mainly due to the manner in which they lost. Elano, Thiago Silva, Andre Santos and Fred missed all A Seleção's attempts. Julio Cesar was unable to stop any of Paraguay's three, two of which were successful.
So, when the referee's whistle brought 120 minutes – and a pulsating 2-2 draw with Spain in their FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-final - to a close in Pereira on Sunday evening, Brazilians were pessimistic. The Iberians had, furthermore, scored six of their seven penalties to eliminate Korea Republic in the Round of 16.
Gabriel nevertheless had his hero's cape on. The 1.93m goalkeeper agilely flung himself south-west to repel Jordi Amit's spot-kick, before somehow diverting Vazquez's effort on to the crossbar. Brazil, who had been outplayed during large portions of the game and had required a succession of brilliant saves from the 18-year-old, had eliminated Spain. A new Taffarel, the penalty-saving specialist of the 1990s, had seemingly been born.
“It's really nice to hear that comparison,” Gabriel told FIFA.com. “But I'm just a young goalkeeper who managed to have a successful night, whereas he's an idol in our country. All Brazilians remember Taffarel and what he did for our country. He's a great inspiration. I would really like to one day achieve what he has achieved.”
Ney Franco weighed in on the likeness. “I hadn't thought about it, but it's true, Gabriel gave a performance just like Taffarel used to,” said the Brazil coach. “The pressure was on but he produced two great saves. That was what we came to expect from Taffarel. Gabriel was decisive. He made some great saves during the game and then during the penalties.”
Gabriel, who was called into Mano Menezes' senior Brazil squad for a training camp last year, revealed that the U-20s had practised penalties enduringly, but not extra because of what happened in last month's Copa America. “Penalties are something that can win or lose you tournaments, so we worked hard on them,” he said. “But we didn't practise more because of what happened at the Copa America. That was a different side in a different competition. We didn't think about that before the shoot-out. We had trained hard and we were confident.”
The Cruzeiro player, who names Kaka and Julio Cesar as his idols, had plenty to think about before the contest even went to penalties. Indeed, he made 12 saves, including superb ones Rodrigo, Oriol Romeu, Isco and Koke, as well as alertly sprinting from his line to deny Sergi Roberto and Vazquez what would have been glaring opportunities.
“I'm very happy with my performance,” he said. “Thank God I managed to make some nice saves to help take the game to penalties, and then I was able to stop two penalties. But the win was down to the whole team. Everybody played well. Everybody deserves congratulations. I just played one part.
“I was kept busy because both teams play attacking football. It was a really beautiful game. It was the most exhilarating match I've been involved in. It must have been great for the [neutral] supporters.”
The majority of those spectators were cheering on Brazil, and the South Americans will expect similar support in the same city on Wednesday, when they face Mexico for a place in the final.
Gabriel said: “I think it will be a really tough game. They're not in the semi-finals for nothing. They've been playing really well. They're fresh from eliminating Colombia in Colombia, which will have really raised their confidence.
“We've got to stay focused. We can't become complacent just because we've beaten Spain, who were considered one of the favourites. But if we keep our concentration and play the football we know we can, we're confident we can win it.”