GABRIEL MARTINELLI WAS a man in a hurry. No surprises there: Martinelli is one of the fastest players in the Premier League, his blistering pace the cause of nightmares for the defenders who have to face him. In one sense, he’s always in a hurry, racing up the pitch at a velocity that would trigger envy in Road Runner. In another sense, he has all the time in the world, sidestepping a tackle and passing the ball into the far corner with the languid insouciance of Don Draper beckoning the bartender over for another Old Fashioned.
But on a December night in 2019, Martinelli and Arsenal were running out of time. The team trailed 1-0 away to West Ham. They hadn’t won in nine games. Nine. You had to travel back to 1977 for a worse run of form. It had cost their manager Unai Emery his job – the Spaniard was sacked after seven. Interim boss and club legend Freddie Ljungberg had so far been unable to locate that elusive W. And when you’re stuck in a rut that is threatening to become historic, a trip to local rivals is the last thing you need.
Inauspicious circumstances for an 18 year old to make his full Premier League debut. But Martinelli wasn’t most 18 year olds. Born in Guarulhos, São Paulo, he started out playing futsal for Corinthians before signing for Ituano FC in 2015. He was the club’s youngest debutant in more than a century at the age of 16. A move to Arsenal soon followed.
He had scored on each of his first four starts for Arsenal across the League Cup and Europa League – the first player to do so since Ian Wright. After he netted twice in a League Cup tie against Liverpool, opposition manager Jurgen Klopp labelling him the “talent of the century”. Now was the moment for the kid to prove it on the big stage.
After an hour against West Ham, Martinelli announced his arrival. Arsenal broke upfield. As Sead Kolašinac broke down the left wing, Martinelli ghosted to the edge of the box. The cross was low, rolled towards the penalty spot. He met it first time on his right foot. Passed it into the far corner as though he’d been doing this for years. As though he had all the time in the world.
He played the full match as Arsenal came back to win 3-1. “Martinelli did amazingly,” said Ljungberg, a man who knows a thing or two about talented wingers. “He is like a Duracell battery, he keeps going.”
And keep going he has. In 2020, Martinelli won the club’s Goal of the Season award for his brilliant solo effort against Chelsea. In 2021, he won Olympic Gold with Brazil and represented his country at the 2022 World cup. And he was a central figure in Arsenal’s title challenge last season, a thrilling young side almost toppling the reigning champions Manchester City only to fall away at the last.
Martinelli is determined to finish the job this time round. “We need to do better than last season,” he says with quiet determination. “We know that we did incredibly well last season, we were second. At the end of the day, we want to win everything and we want to be top of the league because we are Arsenal and we know where we belong to and we know the responsibility that we have. And as I said, we have to win it.”
Steely words from the most unassuming of superstars. The man who invites square mile into his North London house is quiet, courteous and self-effacing – a wise soul in a 22-year-old body. He gamely dons a succession of outfits while admitting with a shy smile that fashion isn’t really his thing. His things are football, friends and family. A model pro – as you can see from the photoshoot. Little wonder the fans adore him.
One of those fans, actor Daniel Sharman, watched the West Ham game from the away end. “I remember being like, ‘fucking hell, that kid’s rapid! He’s fast!’” A devoted Gooner exiled in Los Angeles – apparently there’s a pub that shows the matches at four in the morning – Sharman jumped at the opportunity to interview one of the players who made supporting Arsenal fun again.
“For the last few years,” says Sharman, “a sense of doom and suffering has been replaced by an uneasy, unfamiliar feeling – hope and excitement.
“There’s a closer relationship with the community and fans. At the heart of this new era is a core of young talented players who seem genuinely invested and interwoven into the fabric of the club. Martinelli is the epitome. He came so young and with so little fanfare he feels as authentically Arsenal as the Hale End lads. He’s an adopted Londoner who’s unmistakably Brazilian. And we Gooners love him for it.”
Life being what it is, the interview took place a couple of days after Arsenal dropped their first points of the season, shipping a late equaliser at home to Fulham. Martinelli doesn’t appear too downcast. He’s good at putting the disappointments behind him and going again. “It’s not every day that you’re going to play well,” he later notes to Sharman. “It’s not every day that you’re going to score or assist. The season is long.”
The season is long but Arsenal fans should expect another thriller. Central to their hopes will be their brilliant young Brazilian forward with jet fuel in his boots and ice in his veins.
DANIEL SHARMAN: Gabi, what’s up, man? Nice to meet you.
GABRIEL MARTINELLI: Nice to meet you. All right?
Daniel Sharman: I’m a massive Gooner…
Gabriel Martinelli: So you are not happy at the moment…
Daniel Sharman: It’s OK. I’m relying on you to turn things around!
Gabriel Martinelli: I’m trying my best.
Daniel Sharman: I feel you. So Gabi, I live in LA – I get up at 4am [to watch the matches]. My brother and I used to live around the stadium. It’s part of the fabric of growing up in Hackney and Islington – you are an Arsenal fan. And I was going to ask you where you grew up and how you grew up – who introduced you to football?]
Gabriel Martinelli: My dad to be fair. Because he has always loved football since he was little and since I started to walk and run just from football. He always supported me with my mum and he was always that person that motivated me and inspired me to play football.
Daniel Sharman: If I have a son, I’m going to stick a little football right next to him [when he’s born]. Is that something you want for your child? Or haven’t you thought about it yet?
Gabriel Martinelli: Sometimes when I speak to my friends or family members, I always say I don’t want to have a football player – like, I don’t want my son to play football. But the other week I’m saying it would be so nice. But I’m still young and I hope it takes three, four years to start to think about it properly. It would be nice.
Daniel Sharman: I would never want my son to be an actor just because I know how hard it is…
Gabriel Martinelli: That’s the point. I know how hard it is to get there and to go through all the things. We know what he needs to go through.
Daniel Sharman: When you were a teenager, you had trials at Manchester United and Barcelona. How did it feel to be so young and do those trials at these massive clubs? Did you feel football would be your career at this point?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, I did, I did. I remember the first time I went to Manchester I was younger, I don’t remember now, but I have always been very close to my mum. And when I went there the first time, I went with my dad and I was like, ‘Oh, where’s my mum now? How am I going to sleep now?’
So yeah, I felt the first time. And about the football, I knew that it would be important in my future and it helped me a lot, because when I got here in England, I knew the way that they played. I knew a lot of things so it helped me a lot.
Daniel Sharman: You did four days, didn’t you, in Manchester? For me, if you do an audition over four days, you start to build up a hope that ‘I’m going to get this job.’ Were you disappointed that it didn’t happen? Or did you know there would be other ones along so you weren’t that worried about it?
Gabriel Martinelli: No, it’s because I had to wait until I turned 18. I couldn’t just go there when I was 14, 15. So I knew that I wouldn’t stay there at that point. But when they said that they didn’t want me, of course I got sad and disappointed! But that’s life.
Daniel Sharman: I think sometimes the fans don’t relate to the journey on a personal level. You’re going from Brazil, growing up in Futsal with your friends, and then literally moving to a new country to play for one of the biggest teams in the world and learn a whole new language. Did the club help you with that? Did you download Duolingo?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, I did. I think everyone does it, no? It’s very hard. But you have to always think positive. I always had my family beside me and they’ve been so helpful and always with me and helped me all the way.
Learning the language was tough as well because I didn’t learn it in Brazil. Now I can get by but it’s a new world. You have to live another life. You get used to it, you have to.
Daniel Sharman: Do you just go into autopilot? Take it one week at a time and just get through?
Gabriel Martinelli: Day by day, brick by brick. It’s the same for everyone. Even if you are an actor, it’s the same for you as it is for me – we have to go step by step. And this is what I’ve been trying to do.
Daniel Sharman: I remember seeing one of your first games, I think it was against West Ham. You were rapid! Since your debut you’ve had to be patient, you’ve had three different managers come through and you’ve had to adapt to what they want. Is that hard for you?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, I think the most difficult part is to be patient. At 18, being patient is very hard and I just wanted to play. And I had to be patient and wait for my moment and my chance and take it.
I think it’s the same for everyone in life. You have to wait for a chance and take it. With the managers, yeah, it was Unai [Emery], Freddie [Ljungberg] and Mikel and that game against West Ham was away. That was my first Premier League goal.
Daniel Sharman: Do you still remember every little detail about the goal?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, of course! It was my first Premier League goal, I remember! It’s going to be always in my mind.
Daniel Sharman: I was trying to equate what scoring your first goal must feel like. I can’t even imagine the high that must give you, the buzz.
Gabriel Martinelli: At that moment I just thought, ‘I’m going to pick up the ball and go’ because we were losing 1-0 at that point. I had to run, get the ball and go to the halfway line. I didn’t even celebrate.
Daniel Sharman: A lot of people watched the All or Nothing: Arsenal documentary. What was it like to have people in the dressing room involved in your very private process? Was it weird?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, it’s a bit weird, because sometimes you want to have a conversation with your friend where nobody can listen. And there is a camera on the table and you can’t speak. So you always have to be aware of where the cameras are and what you can say or what you cannot. It was a bit weird because I have never experienced that. But it was good.
Daniel Sharman: Now you know how actors feel, Gabi!
Gabriel Martinelli: I can imagine. The other day I did something for Final Fantasy. I had to remember the lines, it’s so hard. I was sweating and it’s not my first language so it’s even harder! I was like, ‘Nah, this is not for me.’
Daniel Sharman: You don’t want to get into acting after football? Do a Vinnie Jones?
Gabriel Martinelli: No way. Too hard for me.
Daniel Sharman: If you teach me how to play a little bit better in my five-a-side game, I’ll teach you a few tricks about learning lines.
Gabriel Martinelli: I think it’s easier for you to learn how to play than me how to act. I swear, I’m so bad!
Daniel Sharman: Last season was brilliant for Arsenal. There’s an Arsenal pub in Los Angeles where you go at four in the morning. And there were a few moments where it was like, ‘You guys are going to do it! You guys are going fucking to do it!’ Was there a moment for you last season where you felt the title might be gone?
Gabriel Martinelli: Maybe the game against West Ham. Because we drew the game against Liverpool the week before. We were winning 2-0 and they drew the game. And then against West Ham, same thing. I think at that moment we started to drop a little more – but of course, we were still believing.
Daniel Sharman: Of course.
Gabriel Martinelli: Even after the first game I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, we need to win this league.’ And game by game and we were winning, winning, winning. That’s football; we have to learn.
Daniel Sharman: Is it hard to pick yourself out of the negativity? I find sometimes if I go into that negative spiral, it’s hard for me to get out of it. I’ll lose sleep. How do you pick yourself up and go, ‘Right, next time let’s fucking do this?’
Gabriel Martinelli: I always try to talk to my mum, my dad, my missus. Try to talk to the people that I know I really can trust and are going to tell me the truth. Because you see a lot of things on social media, and you can say whatever you want on social media, but most of the time they are not true. So you talk to your family and your loved ones and keep going.
It’s not every day that you’re going to play well. It’s not every day that you’re going to score or assist. The season is long and there will be games that you’re not going to play well, you’re going to lose. And then in two, three days you have to play the Champions League against Real Madrid. We need to be ready for the games and don’t be negative and try to take the positive things even if we lose the game or you play badly.
I always have someone next to me – my mum, my dad, my missus and my friends. If they’re not here, I always try to play games with my friends and try to forget about the game a little bit. And then the next day I start to see what I did wrong and what I did right.
Daniel Sharman: I think it’s such a beautiful life lesson because so often it’s very hard to get perspective. Last season, the amazing thing is that Arsenal were there. To be there is such a brilliant thing. Sometimes you need perspective, fans need perspective sometimes to be like, ‘Look, we are at the top; six seasons ago that’s not how it was.’ So it’s important to have those people in your life.
Gabriel Martinelli: It’s so important, one of the most important things I have in my life – not even in football, life in general. When I have a problem I talk to them and try to take the positives.
Daniel Sharman: A lot has been said about how the fans are closer to the players now. Do you feel that?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, last season and this season they’ve been amazing. The atmosphere in Emirates, it’s been incredible. It’s been crazy. And it’s so nice for us because sometimes in the game we need them.
Like, the opposition are attacking us and we are not doing so well. And when we see the fans cheering us and singing and stuff like that, it gives us a bit of power to change the momentum of the game. They’re so important and they’ve been great for us.
Daniel Sharman: Does it make such a difference when you’re playing away?
Gabriel Martinelli: Personally, I love it. I don’t know why but I feel good when I play away and I see the fans throwing things at us. These small games, I like it. And it’s even better when we do well, when we win the game and then we go there and we play a little bit. It’s so nice, I love it.
Daniel Sharman: You absolutely smash it at Anfield. I feel like every time you play at Anfield it’s like you take their energy and turn it into something.
Gabriel Martinelli: I feel so good when I play away and I see the fans go crazy. It’s always nice to play away as well. But I prefer to play next to my fans.
Daniel Sharman: This season, if you play at somewhere like London Stadium or Goodison Park where we lost last season, is there a little bit of you that’s like, ‘Fuck you guys! This season we’re going to absolutely smash you’?
Gabriel Martinelli: What is in our mind is that we need to do better than last season. We know that we did incredibly well last season, we were second. At the end of the day, we want to win everything and we want to be top of the league because we are Arsenal and we know where we belong to and we know the responsibility that we have. And as I said, we have to win it. So we go to every tournament, everything to win, that’s the mentality.
Daniel Sharman: If there was a young player from Brazil who comes to Arsenal, what’s the first thing you would say about London?
Gabriel Martinelli: It rains a lot! I don’t know, maybe I just say, ‘Do your thing and be yourself. And if you need someone, I’ll be here.’ With Marquinhos and Fábio Vieira when he came from Portugal. I know that I’m young but I always try to help as much as possible because I know how hard it is. I’ve been through this process. So I always try to help.
Daniel Sharman: Anything outside of football that gives you joy? Do you dance?
Gabriel Martinelli: No. My fault. I’m not a good dancer!
Daniel Sharman: So what do you do to chill out, other than football?
Gabriel Martinelli: I like to play games with my friends or go out with my parents, my missus or my friends to have lunch. Today I’m going go-karting. Don’t worry – I’m a good driver!
Daniel Sharman: And you have the PFAs tomorrow? You got the suit?
Gabriel Martinelli: Yeah, I just got it. It’s a classic black suit. It’s weird, I’m not used to wearing these things. I’m a bit nervous.
Daniel Sharman: Gabi, thank you. I appreciate you taking the time. It’s a pleasure to watch you play.
Gabriel Martinelli: All right, my pleasure. My pleasure.