Gustavo Maia: The unknown teenager Barcelona want to finally replace Neymar

Gustavo Maia NxGn GFX Sao Paulo
The 19-year-old is yet to make his senior debut for Sao Paulo but that has not stopped the Catalans from securing a first-option clause on the winger

Barcelona have been looking for their Neymar replacement since 2017 when the Brazil star left for Paris Saint-Germain in a record-breaking deal, leaving a gaping hole on the left-hand side of their forward line.

Ousmane Dembele has struggled for both form and fitness, Philippe Coutinho failed to live up to expectations and Antoine Griezmann is also struggling to fit in, even if the position is not his most natural role. All three cost in excess of €100 million each.

And while the Catalans continue to try and solve the issue in the present, they are also beginning to look to the future in a bid to avoid the same mistakes again. In turn they are heading back to Brazil and its everlasting factory of youth talents to potentially find the new Neymar.

Unlike when the now 28-year-old was plucked from Santos, however, their new target is still relatively unknown even to the most dedicated football fans in his homeland

Gustavo Maia is yet to make his senior debut for Sao Paulo but Barca are putting the work in to ensure they are not beaten to his signature this summer.

Born in Santa Maria in Brazil’s Federal District, Maia has a similar background in the game to many other Brazilian children, famous or other, though he does share a hometown with West Ham and Selecao international playmaker Felipe Anderson.

His footballing education began at Milan-DF, a small club in his state, when he was just 11. He would really rise to prominence, however, when he joined Brasilia Futebol Academia, an institution known for nurturing young footballers before they go onto make their careers at bigger clubs.

Their most recent success story was that of Reinier, who was able to show off his skills at the academy and catch the eye of Flamengo's scouts years ahead of his €35m (£30m/$39m) move to Real Madrid in January.

Maia's breakthrough at youth level came during the 2014 Copa Sul-Americana Amizade Joia in Adamantina, a small city in inner Sao Paulo. He finished as the tournament’s top scorer, netting 16 goals in the process, with a number of top Brazilian clubs, including Sao Paulo, impressed by his performances. When the Tricolor approached to sign him, Maia wasted little time in accepting.

“Sao Paulo was the club that interested me the most with their structure and, of course, they are the biggest club in Brazil”, he told DF Sports of the first big move of his career.

Gustavo Maia GFX

Maia - who has openly revealed his fandom of Manchester City in the past - was certainly not a sensation at youth level, and it was only after the birth of his first child in December 2019 that he truly began his push for a place within Fernando Diniz's first team.

As the new year began, he went from having a regular role as a substitute to one of Sao Paulo’s key players during their run to the quarter-finals of the Sao Paulo Youth Cup. His performances and goals quickly convinced Diniz to give him a chance to train alongside the likes of Dani Alves, Alexandre Pato and Hernanes at senior level.

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A pacey left winger with strong finishing ability and an eye for a pass, Maia has always dreamed of becoming an elite athlete capable of writing his name alongside some of Sao Paulo's greats. However, there is a now a realistic chance he will never make his senior debut for the club, with Barcelona reportedly leading the likes of Liverpool and Atletico Madrid in the battle to sign him this summer.

As revealed by Sao Paulo's sporting director, Alexandre Passaro, to ESPN Brasil, Barca have spent €1m to secure a first-option buyout for the winger.

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“We’ve only negotiated a first-option clause. If Barcelona opt not to exercise it until after June 30, then the money will remain with us,” he explained. “It’s another option to raise funds without necessarily losing the player at that exact moment.”

Regardless of whether Barca take up the option to sign the talented teenager, it seems only a matter of time before he becomes the latest in a long line of Brazilian youngsters currently making their way across the Atlantic to play for Europe's biggest clubs.

The fact that Maia could do so without ever having played a senior match on home soil is more unusual, but he has shown since the start of 2020 that he has the tools to succeed.