How special is Gabriel Veiga? Just ask anyone who's spent any time watching LaLiga this season. The Celta Vigo midfielder, 20, has been Spanish football's breakout young star, his performances leading to the avalanche of hype and headlines that only the emergence of a top new talent can trigger.
From his first goal against Atletico Madrid in September, to his first brace against Real Betis in February, the milestones have kept coming. It's now nine goals and four assists in 29 LaLiga games. Not bad for a central midfielder.
Word soon spread, with Celta president Carlos Mourino saying in March that "four of the Premier League's top 10" had called to ask about Veiga's release clause. ESPN reported that Manchester United, Liverpool and more recently Manchester City were all keen, with Real Madrid paying close attention.
Celta's youth academy, A Madroa, is just outside Vigo -- a port city in Galicia, Spain's wild northwest -- and people have been excited about "Gabri" for a little longer. But the speed and extent of his breakthrough has caught everyone by surprise.
Ahead of Celta's trip to Real Madrid on Saturday (stream on ESPN+, 3 p.m. ET, US only), ESPN takes a look at the story of LaLiga's most in-demand young player, and what his future might hold.
From kicking pumpkins to LaLiga breakout
Celta's academy director Carlos Hugo Garcia Bayon can identify the exact moment he realised Veiga was out of the ordinary.
"There was a goal he scored when he was still a juvenile player, with the under-17s or under-18s," he tells ESPN. "It was away at [local Vigo club] Santa Marina. I was there watching with some colleagues.
"We had a throw in. The ball was thrown straight to him, just outside the box. He let the ball run between his legs, losing his marker behind him. He beat two more players and scored with a shot that went in off the post.
"It was an incredible goal. One of those where you say '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 were looking for something different, we saw it that day."
Veiga is the latest, high-profile product of a long-term Celta policy. Without the resources to compete with giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, the club -- which has spent 57 of their 100-year history in the first division and sits 11th in the all-time LaLiga points table despite never winning a major trophy -- has settled on a needs-must strategy: a focus on youth development.
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 hero Iago Aspas (12), Veiga (nine) and another highly rated youngster, Miguel Rodriguez (one).
"We try to create an identity, a feeling of belonging," Bayon tells ESPN. "So when kids get to the first team, they want to play for Celta, even if they get offers from other big clubs. Examples make the case for you. For the boys, their agents, their parents, that's really important. You don't have to say much: just look at [the first-team squad]."
Veiga is a local boy, born in O Porrino, a town of just over 20,000 people, half an hour outside Vigo. It's not quite as rustic as his origin story would have you believe.
"When I was little, at my aunt and uncle's house, I started kicking a pumpkin," he told newspaper La Voz de Galicia last year. "From there, I got the idea of balls in my head."
He played for two local teams before joining Celta at the age of 11. Youth development is an inexact science. Some players explode early, only to lose their way; others are slow burners. Veiga's progress through Celta's academy was steady.
"When he reached [under-18 level] in 2019, he was just another player," the former Celta academy coach Jorge Cuesta told El Pais. "He didn't stand out. Now he's one of the best players in Spain. Anyone who tells you that they knew that Gabri was going to become what he is now is lying."
"He emerged little by little," Bayon tells ESPN. "He didn't have all the spotlight on him when he was young. Quite the opposite. In our experience, the players who have the best chance of making it are the ones who go step by step, improving every day, without raising too many expectations, without agents around them, without brands wanting to sponsor them or clubs wanting to take them away.
"That allows you to mature naturally, at home with your family, your friends, at school. All that has helped. His growth has been step by step."
Veiga made his first-team debut under then-Celta coach Oscar Garcia, a late substitute in a 2-1 win over Valencia on Sept. 19, 2020. Two weeks later he made his first start in a 3-0 home loss to Barcelona.
"Despite the result, I think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime game," Veiga told La Voz de Galicia. "I had my childhood idols in front of me."
Barca's team that day featured Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique. That was 2½ years ago. Veiga made just six first-team appearances in 2020-21, five of them as a substitute. Most weeks he played for Celta's reserve team, Celta Vigo B. The 2021-22 season wasn't much better, with seven substitute appearances, five of them coming in May with the season almost over. So what has changed this year?
"The club made space for him," Bayon tells ESPN. "With the growth he's had, the club wanted to make room for him this season. They didn't sign anyone in his position. That's what's changed. He's had minutes from the start. The club took a chance, and the coaches saw that he was delivering."
Celta began the season with Eduardo '"Chacho" Coudet as coach. The Argentine was fired in November after just one win in 10 games and replaced by Carlos Carvalhal, formerly of Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City. The managerial change didn't dent Veiga's prospects -- 13 of this season's league appearances came with Coudet, and 14 under Carvalhal -- and the goals have kept coming, his importance to the team increasingly obvious.
It's hard to get away from the goals, scored in many different ways, though they're almost all brilliant. His first, in a 4-1 defeat at Atletico Madrid, saw him beat Jan Oblak at his near post. His second -- giving Celta a 1-0 win over Real Betis on Oct. 2 -- was a sign of things to come, receiving the ball inside the Betis half and beating three players before firing past Rui Silva from 30 yards.
Gabriel Veiga puts Celta Vigo 1-0 up after a brilliant strike from distance against Real Betis in LaLiga.
His goal against Almeria on Oct. 29 was even better, a first-time finish that caressed the crossbar on the way in -- only belatedly spoiled by his sending off seven minutes later.
There was the goal against Sevilla on Dec. 30, keeping a cool head, one-on-one, to scoop the ball over the keeper. 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 display against Real Valladolid, scoring twice and assisting another.
Asked to identify Veiga's one outstanding quality, Bayon doesn't hesitate. "It's his llegada, his runs into the box," he tells ESPN. "Arriving at the right time. It looks easy, but it isn't -- if it was, everyone would do it. The kind of player who's able to get to where they need to be at just the right moment, to finish the move off."
Like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? "Those are just the examples I was about to give! He's physically very strong, too. For any style of football, he has it all."
On to Europe's elite teams?
A record of nine goals and four assists compares with Europe's best attacking midfielders. Arsenal's Martin Odegaard, at 24, has 11 goals and seven assists this season. Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes, 28, has five goals and six assists. Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala -- 20, like Veiga -- has 11 goals and nine assists.
"He's a surprise," Carvalhal said in February. "I haven't seen many players like him in my career. He isn't the kind of player who's all about touch or precision, but he knows how to play. He's smart, he's very strong, and he knows how to get into the box."
Success hasn't changed him, teammates say. Veiga has continued his studies while playing, taking a journalism degree.
"He still goes to watch Celta B games," one source told ESPN. "He goes into their dressing room when the games are over, because he still thinks he's a reserve team player."
"He still has the same friends as always. His family is really normal, like he is," a source said. "He doesn't go to the typical places in summer like Ibiza or anywhere like that. He prefers other, more normal places."
A teammate laughs: "One day he didn't stop to sign autographs because he didn't think the fans were asking for him."
Veiga leaving Celta isn't 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] is going to buy him and we can't do anything about it," he said in a news conference on March 23. "We're aware of some of the offers that Gabri has had. As much as we'd like to, we can't pay him what other teams can.
"If he leaves -- it depends on him, but we understand that it's an offer you can't refuse -- our doors will remain open for him to return. [A club] will pay his release clause. We know we won't be able to keep him. Of the 10 top clubs in the Premier League, at least four have called us."
That release clause stands at a bargain €40 million, sources have confirmed to ESPN.
"We'd all like him to stay with us," Garcia says. "We want our players here at home, especially if they're as good as Gabri. But it's football. There are release clauses, and we can't do anything. Let's hope he stays, and if not, he goes where he thinks best."
Celta were keen to renew Veiga's contract -- signed last May -- with a substantial increase in the clause, sources said, but the player refused, having not been entirely happy with how the club acted in negotiations for his last deal. England feels like a natural destination, given Veiga's profile. LaLiga's loss would be the Premier League's gain.