Jesus is ready to answer Brazil call on world stage
Fearless 21-year-old set to make big impression in Russia after superb season with Man City
There are pictures from 2014 of a 17-year-old Gabriel Jesus helping to paint the street where he lived as World Cup fever swept Brazil. Four years on, Jesus is no longer the painter but the painted. Several adjoining houses in Jardim Peri, the Sao Paulo neighbourhood where he grew up, have been daubed in turquoise, green and yellow with an image of Jesus performing his now familiar goal celebration, where he pretends to phone his mother, Dona Vera, his biggest fan and harshest critic.
The phone company that sponsors the Brazil team were never going to pass on a marketing opportunity like that and so, just to underline Jesus's emergence from starry-eyed teenager to central striker in Tite's resurgent side, commercials milking that pose are playing on repeat back in Brazil. It has been a meteoric rise for a player whose £27 million move to Manchester City from Palmeiras in January last year introduced an European audience to a talent on which Brazil are pinning so many hopes. He helped City demolish a series of records en route to lifting the Premier League title and now Russia represents the next stop on a whirlwind journey.
It is certainly a long way from Jardim Peri to Rostov-on-Don, where Brazil play their opening game tonight. The Selecao will hope it is a positive first step towards atonement for their 7-1 humbling by Germany on home soil in the semi-finals of the last World Cup. "He has a lot of talent, a lot of potential," said Ze Roberto, the former Brazil international. "This World Cup could belong to him."
Ordinarily, any 21-year-old entrusted with the No 9 shirt would be Brazil's poster boy. But Jesus has benefited to some extent from the attention Neymar attracts and which, in turn, has helped the City forward to escape a more intense spotlight.
"That's probably true," said Martin Fernandez, a football writer with Brazilian newspaper O Globo. "Neymar kind of adopted him. It was almost a 'No one is going to mess with my little brother' type attitude and I think that's good for him. But at the same time the pressure doesn't really affect Gabriel. It's no different to him if he's playing in the street in his local neighbourhood or the Maracana."
Observers of Manchester City might challenge that notion, though. A member of City's hierarchy casually suggested before Christmas that Jesus was probably worth quadruple their original investment but there is a way to go before he becomes a £100m player. He looked lost in the first leg of City's 3-0 Champions League quarter-final defeat by Liverpool at Anfield.
Neymar and Willian are expected to flank Jesus against Switzerland, with Philippe Coutinho playing deeper. The youngster has certainly impressed in training this week, the only false step coming on Wednesday when a friend unwittingly posted a video of a closed training session. "I am new to the selection and my friends and family are also. He didn't have the experience of knowing he could not film and post that," Jesus said.
Despite his own inexperience, Jesus cuts a mature figure. "I've been very impressed with him," said veteran centre-back Miranda. "He might be our next Ronaldo. He looks like he is in the back end of his career but he's just in the early stages. He has a brilliant future."
If Jesus scores at this tournament he will become the third youngest Brazilian to find the net at a World Cup after Pele and Leonidas da Silva. Ronaldo was six months older than Jesus when he claimed his first World Cup goal.
Unlike some of his team-mates, Jesus was not scarred by the 7-1, and that fearlessness of youth could prove liberating. "I look at those old photos [from 2014] and get emotional thinking about the dreams I had and the things I've been through to get to where I am now," he said.
Sunday Indo Sport