There’s a picture of the man who will be wearing the number nine shirt for Brazil at this summer’s World Cup in Russia. You’ve probably seen it doing the rounds on social media.
An adolescent with the frame of a boy, still in the midst of negotiating those awkward teenage years, stands, bucket by his feet and brush in his hands, ready to coat the pavements of his neighbourhood in the famous green and yellow of the seleção brasileira – the Brazilian national side, – five-time world champions and favourites to lift the trophy for a record sixth time, if you believe what you see on the bet365 website.
That skinny boy is Gabriel Jesus, the neighbourhood Jardim Peri in São Paulo’s Zona Norte, and the boy with the brush has now become integral to Tite’s set-up and Brazil’s hopes of winning the hexa, as a sixth World Cup crown would be dubbed in this corner of the globe.
From firing Palmeiras to the 2016 Brasileirão title to being the centrepiece of Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking new-look Manchester City side, never has the limelight shone so brightly on the 21-year-old who was last week awarded the captain’s armband by his coach for the warm-up friendly against Croatia.
At the time of the 2014 World Cup, when Brazil were being handed a chastening at the Mineirão by the eventual world champions in a result several of the younger generation will tell you is every bit as traumatising as the Fateful Final of 1950, Jesus was a promising teenager in the Palmeiras U-17 side.
But the true start of his story goes back almost a decade earlier, to a dirt track close to his home, his first club known as Pequeninos FC and the first coach to take him under his wing, José Francisco Mamede, who today runs a real estate business in the hustle and bustle of the São Paulo metropolis.
And the first thing that caught the eye of Mamede was not the boy’s natural talent, going as far as to say that there were perhaps four or five boys in that age gap more gifted than Manchester City’s number thirty-three. It was an asset that is arguably even more valuable – attitude and determination.
“When you saw Jesus, he had one very obvious advantage over his colleagues. He was very, very fast,” Mamede explains.
“He wasn’t the most gifted I have ever seen, not even in that age group. But his attitude set him apart. He would work and work at his game, again and again, and it’s paid off for him,” he continues. “We had a saying about him – if you ask Jesus to do something 10 times, he’ll do it 20.”
Jesus’ mother worked cleaning houses, meaning the youngster would often walk the two kilometres to training sessions.
His performances for Pequeninos had caught the eye of scouts at both São Paulo FC and Corinthians, but his trials ultimately were fruitless. It was not until the age of 14 that Palmeiras took a chance on the youngster who would eventually fire the club to their first league title in over two decades.
Upon moving to the Paulista outfit – one of the biggest clubs across this gargantuan country – Jesus came under the wing of Bruno Petri. “I was his main coach during his academy years at the club and saw his progress first hand,” Petri said.
“There was one who came through the ranks with him, Gabriel Vinicius, and they were a real pair. The two Gabriels we used to call them, one creator and one finisher. They were the two that gave us real hope at Palmeiras that they could go on to achieve great things in the game.”
But it was under Petri’s stewardship and guidance that the youngster was given a first opportunity to show São Paulo and Corinthians just what they had missed out on. In the quarter-finals of the U-17 São Paulo state championship, Jesus announced himself by bagging four goals against Corinthians, a hat-trick against São Paulo in the semi-finals and a brace against Santos in the final.
“That was great for me to see,” Petri says with a smile. “You would never look at Gabriel Jesus and say that he is the best player with a ball at his feet that you have seen, but his speed, determination and work rate have turned him into one of the best number nines in world football.”
Does he have the ability to go on and win the Ballon d’Or one day?
“I’m not so sure, but he can certainly be the one of the best in his position. Perhaps in the top four or five in the world,” Petri ponders aloud.
Jesus’ continued upward trajectory has continued with an Olympic gold medal in August 2016, a Brazilian league title in December league title, a Premier League winners medal a couple of months back and a potential World Cup winners’ medal next month.
A vital cog
Since Tite took over from the uninspiring Dunga following Brazil’s group stage elimination at the centenary edition of the Copa América in 2016, Gabriel Jesus has been a vital member of the seleção attacking machine.
He was straight in for the new boss’ first game in charge, a World Cup qualifier away to an in-form Ecuador side. Brazil, who were lumbering in sixth place at that stage, recorded a comprehensive 3-0 win. Jesus repaid the faith shown in him with a well-taken brace.
Of the players to have played the most minutes under Tite, Gabriel Jesus sits fifth on a list of 50 players used by the former Corinthians boss. The 21-year-old has been on the pitch for 1,231 minutes, with only Daniel Alves, Miranda, goalkeeper Alisson and Paulinho ahead of him.
Those last three will be sure-fire starters against Switzerland in Brazil’s World Cup opener against Switzerland on 17 June, as Daniel Alves would have been had he not picked up an injury in the final of the French Cup.
It’s not something that surprises his close friend and former teammate, Gabriel Vinicius. “He had the ability to make it to the top, yes. He’s also humble and doesn’t let the attention get to his head. It helps keep his feet on the ground.”
As does his now famed goal celebration. Running from the goal, the striker makes a phone gesture with his hand, holding it to his mouth to say, “Alô, mãe!” "Hello, mum!" It’s a message to the mother who has had his back since the start of an adventure that could end in the player lifting the biggest prize in the game before his 22nd birthday.
But now, there is added expectation thrown onto those slim shoulders. Brazil rose from sixth to win the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group at a canter under Tite, becoming the first side to qualify for this summer’s event, with the exception of hosts Russia.
In addition to that double against Ecuador, Jesus also found the back of the net in the 5-0 thrashing of Bolivia, he scored the opener in a 2-0 win away to Venezuela, the opener in another 2-0 win, this time away to Peru, and scored another brace in the final qualifier, at home to Chile, to cement Brazil’s superiority on their own continent.
One hand on the cup
For Petri, it was this final qualifier that was arguably the cherry on the cake of Jesus’ short albeit glittering career thus far: as much from a personal perspective as a professional one.
That game against Chile, played on 10 October 2017, was played at the Allianz Parque, the home ground of Palmeiras, where Jesus’ professional story began and has been the launching pad of a rapid ascension right to the top of elite level football – those who have had more than a helping hand in his progress can certainly allow themselves a wry smile.
Petri was in the stadium that night and spoke to Jesus briefly before the game. “I shook his hand and just told him to enjoy it. He really deserves the chance he was given and he is enjoying the moment,” he said, and the corners of his mouth cannot help but turn surreptitiously upwards.
Tite deserves all the plaudits that have come his way since taking over at the helm of the seleção ship close to two years ago now. Neymar is, of course, the face of this team and it is on the PSG man’s shoulders that hope is portrayed to rest. But the spearhead of a potent attack is the man who has left Jardim Peri for east Manchester.
There was a well-taken goal this past weekend against Austria, a 10th goal in just 17 international appearances, complete with a celebratory mimed phone call to his mother. If we see that call made in Russia, watch out – Brazil could have a hand on the cup.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Brazil's chances in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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