When 21 year-old Gabri Veiga walks out onto the crisp, fresh turf of the Balaídos on Sunday evening, to pick up the Manuel de Castro Trophy for Celta’s best player of 2023, those in the ethereal blue seats will be carefully considering what kind of reception they choose to give to their former star player. 

As recently as September 2022, the attacking midfielder had first emerged onto the scene for Celta, coming off the bench to score a late consolation goal in a harrowing 4-1 defeat away to Atlético Madrid. 

Quickly, the then 20 year-old, would establish himself as a regular, going on to feature in all of Celta’s remaining games that he was available for. His form would justify this starting role as Veiga made 15 goal contributions throughout the course of the season, including an impressive brace in Celta’s 4-3 win over Real Betis and, most notably, two goals on the final day of the season against Barcelona to rescue the Galician side from the precipice of relegation. 

That is the last time, Veiga was named in the starting line-up of his boyhood club, with Celta’s highly touted and much loved academy product choosing to depart the La Liga side just two months after he had secured their league fate for another season. 

With Liverpool, Newcastle United and both Manchester clubs all rumoured to have been interested in the attacking starlet as well as Italian giants Napoli and one of Spain’s biggest clubs in the form of Real Madrid, opportunities were abound for the breakout star.

However, Veiga quickly snubbed those offers and, instead to the dismay of many, chose to form part of the mass exodus to Saudi Arabia, becoming one of the few young players to move from Europe to the riches of Saudi Arabia. 

Signing for Saudi Pro League side, Al-Ahli, Veiga would arrive to much fanfare and joined up with the likes of 33 year-old Riyad Mahrez, 32 year-olds Edouard Mendy and Roberto Firmino as well as 27 year-old Allan Saint-Maximin. Players who had all arguably enjoyed the best of their career’s playing in football’s most prestigious and competitive competitions in the form of the Premier League and Europe’s continent-wide competitions. 

(Photo by Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)
(Photo by Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

Veiga was deemed the outlier; a player moving at the start of his career instead of the end, a player with so many clubs after him instead of one with few options and a young prodigy instead of one nearing retirement. 

In the immediate aftermath of the transfer, Veiga was subject to scathing criticism, including from German international and Real Madrid player, Toni Kroos, who labelled the move as ‘embarrassing’. 

The five times Champions League winner later added: “It's an incredibly bad example for a lot of young youth players that the motivation is money. I think it's a pity for everyone who puts sporting thoughts to the back of their minds in the absolute top football age. That's just not a good role model for me and a danger for the football of the future.”

Now, Veiga who was previously one of Spain’s best young talents, finds himself at Saudi Arabia’s third best club, according to league rankings, and lagging 41 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal. 

Speaking to El Larguero at the time, Veiga had defended his move, saying: “It [the transfer to Al-Ahli] was the best option to develop as a player, grow under a young coach, a team full of stars and a league improving as the Saudi Pro League. I’m 100 per cent proud of my choice”. 

Since Veiga’s move, many of the players that made the switch to Saudi Arabia have looked for a subsequent way out, with Jordan Henderson choosing to terminate his contract after less than six months at Al-Ettifaq while Karim Benzema desperately searched for a way out in January to no avail. 

Veiga’s own form has also been less impressive, in a league in which attendances at some grounds have been regularly below 1000, with the 21 year-old scoring 4 goals and making three assists in just 16 appearances for Al-Ahli. 

The player has also been troubled by ankle injury, resulting in him missing Spain U21’s most recent international break and the last five games for his new side.

Celta have also, unsurprisingly, struggled without their talismanic midfielder who was famed for his forward runs from deep and hard work off the ball. The Galician side find themselves languishing in 17th position in La Liga, just five points above the drop zone, after Rafael Benitez’s eight month tenure came to a premature end in early March after a run of poor results. 

Therefore, when Veiga makes his return to the place where he impressed so many, the reaction he gets from his once ardent supporters may be very different, as the question on the mind of most will surely be… what if?