How special is Gabriel Veiga? Just ask anyone who spent time watching league this season. The Celta Vigo Midfielder, 20, was the young star of Spanish football whose performances sparked an avalanche of hype and headlines that only the emergence of a top new talent can unleash.
From his first goal against Atlético Madrid in September for his first brace against Real Betis in February the milestones kept coming. It’s now nine goals and four assists in 29 LaLiga games. Not bad for a central midfielder.
The news soon spread, with Celta President Carlos Mourino saying in March that “four of the First League‘s Top 10 called to ask about Veiga’s release clause. ESPN reports The Manchester United, Liverpool and recently Manchester City were all keen with real Madrid pay close attention.
Celta’s youth academy A Madroa is just outside of Vigo – a port city in Galicia, in wild north-west Spain – and people have been enamored with ‘Gabri’ for a little longer. But the speed and scale of his breakthrough took everyone by surprise.
Ahead of Celta’s trip to Real Madrid on Saturday (Stream on ESPN+, 3 p.m. ETOnly we) ESPN takes a look at the history of LaLiga’s most sought-after young player and what his future could hold.
From kicking the pumpkins to breaking out in LaLiga
Celta Academy Director Carlos Hugo Garcia Bayon can identify the precise moment he realized Veiga was exceptional.
“There was a goal that he scored when he was a youngster, with the U17s or U18s,” he told ESPN. “It was gone [local Vigo club] Santa Marina. I watched there with some colleagues.
“We had a throw-in. The ball was thrown to him just outside the penalty area. He ran the ball between his legs and lost his marker behind him. He beat two other players and scored with a shot that went into the post.
“It was an incredible goal. One of those ones where you go, ‘ufff, you wouldn’t see that in the First Division’ and Gabri just did it. We already knew he was making progress, but if you look after were looking for something else, we saw it that day.”
Veiga is the latest high-profile product in a long-term Celta policy. Without the resources to compete with giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, the club that has spent 57 of its 100-year history in the first division and sits 11th in the all-time LaLiga points table despite never having won a major title, have settled on a strategy of necessity: a focus on the promotion of young people.
First choice goalkeeper Ivan Villar is a canterano, or academy product. So is full-back and captain Hugo Mallo. This season, 22 of Celta’s 36 league goals have been scored by homegrown players: local heroes Iago Aspas (12), Veiga (nine) and another highly rated youngster, Miguel Rodriguez (one).
“We’re trying to create an identity, a sense of belonging,” Bayon tells ESPN. “So when kids come into the first team, they want to play for Celta, even if they get offers from other big clubs. Examples speak for you. For the boys, their agents, their parents, it’s really important. You put it on, you don’t have to say much: just look [the first-team squad].”
Veiga is a local boy, born in O Porrino, a town of just over 20,000 inhabitants half an hour outside of Vigo. It’s not quite as rustic as its origin story would have you believe.
“When I was little, I started kicking a pumpkin at my aunt and uncle’s house,” he told the newspaper La Voz de Galicia last year. “From then on I had the idea of balls in my head.”
He played for two local sides before joining Celta at the age of 11. Promoting young talent is an imprecise science. Some players explode early only to get lost; others are perennial favorites. Veiga’s progress through Celta’s Academy was steady.
“When he arrived [under-18 level] In 2019 he was just another player,” said former Celta academy coach Jorge Cuesta El País. “He didn’t excel. Now he’s one of the best players in Spain. Anyone who tells you they knew Gabri would become what he is now is lying.”
“He gradually emerged,” Bayon tells ESPN. “When he was young, he wasn’t in the spotlight. On the contrary. In our experience, the players who have the best chance of making it are the ones who go step by step and improve every day without also increasing .” lots of expectations, with no agents around them, no brands to sponsor them or clubs to take away from them.
“It allows you to mature naturally, at home with your family, with your friends, at school. All of that helped. His growth was gradual.”
Veiga made his first-team debut under then-Celta coach Oscar Garcia, a late substitute in the 2-1 win Valencia on September 19, 2020. He made his first start two weeks later in a 3-0 home loss to Barcelona.
“Despite the result, I consider it a once-in-a-lifetime game,” Veiga told La Voz de Galicia. “I had my childhood idols in front of me.”
Barca’s team was there that day Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets And Gerhard Pique. That was 2½ years ago. Veiga made just six appearances for the first-team in 2020-21, five of them as a substitute. Most weeks he played for Celta’s reserve side Celta Vigo B. The 2021/22 season wasn’t much better with seven substitute appearances, five of which came in May just before the end of the season. So what has changed this year?
“The club made way for him,” Bayon told ESPN. “As the club grew, they wanted to make room for him this season. They didn’t sign anyone in his position. That has changed. He had minutes from the start. The club took a risk and the coaches saw that.” he delivered.”
Celta started the season with Eduardo ‘Chacho’ Coudet as coach. The Argentine was sacked in November after just one win in ten games and replaced by Carlos Carvalhal, who used to play for Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City. The managerial change hasn’t hurt Veiga’s prospects – 13 league games this season came with Coudet and 14 under Carvalhal – and as the goals kept coming, his importance to the team became increasingly apparent.
It’s hard to get away from goals scored in many different ways, although almost all of them are brilliant. His first, in a 4-1 defeat at Atlético Madrid, saw him beaten Jan Oblak at his near post. His second – which gave Celta a 1-0 win over Real Betis on October 2 – was a sign of things to come as he received the ball in the Betis half and punched three players before firing wide Rui Silva from 30 meters.
His goal against Almeria on 29 October was even better, a first finish that stroked the crossbar en route – only belatedly spoiled by his dismissal seven minutes later.
There was the goal Seville December 30th, keep your cool, one on one, to scoop the ball over the goalkeeper. There was the brace against Betis in one of the games of the season, a 4-3 away win. There was the man-of-the-match performance opposite Real Valladolid, score twice and assist another.
When asked about Veiga’s outstanding quality, Bayon does not hesitate. “It is his legada, his runs in the box,” he tells ESPN. “He comes at the right time. It looks easy, but it’s not – if it were, everyone would be doing it. The kind of players who get where they need to be at just the right moment to finish the move.”
Like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? “These are just the examples I wanted to give right away! He’s also physically very strong. He has everything for every style of football.”
Off to Europe’s elite teams?
A record of nine goals and four assists is comparable to Europe’s best attacking midfielders. arsenal‘S Martin Odegaard, at 24, has 11 goals and seven assists this season. Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes28, has five goals and six assists. Bayern Munich‘S Jamal Musiala – 20, like Veiga – has 11 goals and nine assists.
“He’s a surprise,” said Carvalhal in February. “I haven’t seen many players like him in my career. He’s not the kind of player who just cares about touch or precision, but he knows how to play. He’s smart, he’s very strong and he knows how to get in the box.”
Success hasn’t changed him, say teammates. Veiga has continued his studies alongside gaming, earning a degree in journalism.
“He’s still watching Celta B games,” a source told ESPN. “He goes to the dressing room after the game because he still thinks he’s a reserve player.”
“He still has the same friends as always. His family is really normal, as is he,” a source said. “He doesn’t go to the typical places like Ibiza or something like that in the summer. He prefers other, more normal places.”
A teammate laughs: “One day he didn’t stop signing autographs because he thought the fans wouldn’t ask about him.”
Veiga leaving Celta is not a question of when or if. It will happen this summer. Just ask Club President Mourino.
“We don’t want to sell Gabri, but [a club] will buy it and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said in a press conference on March 23. “We are aware of some offers Gabri had. As much as we’d like to, we can’t pay him what other teams can.
“If he leaves – it’s up to him but we understand it’s an offer you can’t refuse – our doors will remain open for him to return. [A club] pays his release clause. We know we can’t keep him. At least four of the top 10 clubs in the Premier League called us.”
That release clause amounts to a bargain price of €40m, sources have confirmed to ESPN.
“We all want him to stay with us,” Garcia says. “We want our players here at home, especially if they are as good as Gabri. But it’s football. There are release clauses and there’s nothing we can do. Let’s hope he stays and if not, he goes where he thinks.” preferably.”
Celta were keen to extend Veiga’s contract – signed last May – with a substantial increase in the clause, sources said, but the player declined as he was not entirely comfortable with the club’s behavior in negotiating his latest deal was satisfied. England feels like a natural target given Veiga’s profile. Losing LaLiga would mean winning the Premier League.