Palmeiras face Santos in Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final
Gabriel Menino discusses the showdown, Weverton and Alphonso Davies
The 20-year-old raves about his Brazil call-up and meeting Neymar
A teenager reluctantly dragged himself away from PlayStation, where he revelled in executing drag-back sombreros and rainbow flicks as Neymar, and headed, via a swift mirror glance, for the TV. He sat down to watch Flamengo face River Plate in the Copa Libertadores 2019 final dreaming of three things: winning a youth state championship final the following day, making his professional debut for the club some day, and getting the burgeoning moustache he'd just checked out bang on.
Palmeiras did conquer that Paulista U-20 crown. The youngster did make his professional debut two months later. And today the tache is just how the Morungaba native wants it. Gabriel Menino has, however, achieved unimaginably more in the small window thereafter.
The Paris Saint-Germain megastar with whom he used to pull off party pieces? Neymar is now the Palmeiras No25’s team-mate in the Brazilian national team. The prestigious final he was watching on the box? He’s now arguably the headline act going into the following edition’s fixture.
FIFA.com caught up with Gabriel Menino to discuss his meteoric rise, the Libertadores final against Santos, Alphonso Davies, his Brazil call-up and meeting boyhood hero Neymar.
Gabriel Menino: I feel like I’m in a dream. (laughs) Everything has happened so, so quickly. My professional debut, the first title, my first goal, the Seleção, that night in Argentina, reaching the [Libertadores] final – every step has felt like a dream. It seems like yesterday that I was a supporter. It’s hard to believe, but at the same time I’ve said since day one that I don’t just want to be another player – I want to go down in the history of this club. When I’m at the club [headquarters] I look at the photos of legends who have made history at the club and I think, ‘I want to see my photo there’. How good would it be to become an eternal idol at one of the biggest clubs in the world?
I think it’s been incredible, but we want to make it historic. We won the Campeonato Paulista, we’ve reached the Copa do Brasil final, we were the best team in the group stage and have reached the Libertadores final. Ok, the last game wasn’t our best performance, we maybe lacked a bit of concentration and composure, but over the course of the campaign we definitely deserve to be here. Now the hour has come to turn it into one of the best campaigns in the history of this club.
He’s been magnificent. He produces huge saves at crucial moments. He’s the best goalkeeper in Brazil and one of the best there is [in the world]. And he’s as good a person as he is a goalkeeper. I’m very grateful to have him as a team-mate and it instils us [outfield] players with great confidence knowing he’s in our goal.
I think I’ll say Lucas Verissimo. Santos have a lot of very good attacking players, but he’s a superb defender.
I’m very confident. We’re taking Santos very seriously, they have a very strong team. The Libertadores is a great competition – it involves so much passion and emotion – and I think the final will be a great spectacle not just for Brazil, but for the world. Two great sides, both score goals, a derby. But every time I think about it I envision Palmeiras as champions. We have great players who work for each other, a great team, a great squad, a coach who gets the best out of us. We have so much heart and great belief. The Palmeiras supporters are fanatical, unbelievably passionate. ’99, it’s been too long – I wasn’t even born. We are determined to win the Libertadores trophy for them. I firmly believe we will become champions.
In the starting XI. I just want to play. The coach knows best where I should play depending on the game. I enjoy playing in midfield and I enjoy playing at wingback. I’ll give my all for the team wherever I play.
That performance against Barcelona! I remember his dribbles. He’s an outstanding player, already one of the best in the world where he plays. He’s an inspiration for me. He’s only young but has achieved so much. It would be an amazing experience to play against him and Bayern at the Club World Cup.
It was an indescribable feeling. The Brazilian national team is the ultimate for any player and it was only my first year as a professional. I remember getting there and looking at players I played as on video games. I just couldn’t believe it. It took me a while to take in. Everyone was so cool with me and the quality of the players was something else. I learned a lot. It was incredible to be there and it made me so determined to keep getting called up.
It was funny. I idolised Neymar when I was a kid. One time Santos were playing not too far away and I begged my father to take me. We went and I remember screaming, ‘Neymar, Neymar’ the whole match until I completely lost my voice. I had been with the squad a little time and then suddenly Neymar walked in. I wanted to burst out crying – I was realising a childhood dream. I really had to hold back the tears not to look bad. I saw him coming up to me and I was a little nervous. He introduced himself and welcomed me to the squad. He was really nice, humble. So I told him the story of how he made me lose my voice. ‘Wow, I’m already that old!,’ he said. We both laughed. I couldn’t believe Neymar was in front of me.
I think he’s an unbelievable player and I think he deserves to win the FIFA award. Some of the things he can do are unimaginable. I believe he can win [The Best FIFA Men’s Player] this year and I believe the 2022 World Cup can belong to Neymar.
(laughs) You can’t imagine. The World Cup, man! I will keep working as hard as possible, giving my all on the pitch so hopefully I can realise this huge dream.