As recently as 2012, the year Manchester City won their third league title, Gabriel Jesus was playing várzea, Brazilian grassroots football that takes place on poor quality clay pitches.
His progress in the intervening period has been remarkable and with his transfer from Palmeiras to City confirmed, his rise from street footballer to the most talked about young South American in the game is complete.
He grew up in Jardim Peri, a tough, uncompromising favela just outside of Sao Paulo. He was the youngest of four children raised by his mother, Vera Lucia, who worked as a housekeeper and remains his biggest influence to this day.
These were humble beginnings but Jesus’ love of his home and family are obvious. His ‘telephone’ celebration after each goal he scores is a reference to the close contact he has with his mother and the tattoo on his right arm depicting a young boy holding a football looking out over a favela with the words ‘Jardim Peri’ sketched large symbolises the bond he has with the place of his birth.
Unlike many of his European counterparts, he wasn’t signed by a top club at an early age and then developed in a professional academy setup. He entered the system via a more informal route, but it was one which allowed him to develop a dazzling style of play.
By remaining in an environment in which he felt comfortable, surrounded by family and close friends, where street football is played throughout the day and long into the evening, he mastered aspects of the game that formal coaching can sometimes quash.
“Street football is tough,” says Robinho, who played for City between 2008-10 and took a similar route into the professional game as Jesus. “But it helps you to improve your ball control and your improvising skills. There are some tricks that Gabriel and me do that come from street football - it is not something that we practice. Street football helps you to create an unexpected move all of a sudden.”
Like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar before him, Jesus is a Brazilian who plays with freedom and an ability to improvise at pace, beating players with tricks, flicks and shimmies. There are no rules. His style excites supporters and, most importantly, wins matches.
He is very courageous, plays football at high intensity and does not give up on the pitch.
“Improvising is part of the Brazilian player and this can be quite helpful for him,” says former City midfielder Elano. “In England he will not have too much space to play and the game is really fast, so it is vital for the player to keep the ball close to his feet and body. Given his characteristics and his technique, I am of the opinion that he will adapt easily to English football.
“He is very courageous, plays football at high intensity and does not give up on the pitch. Obviously that he is young and he will improve, but judging from what I have already seen, I believe that he will succeed at City. I would really appreciate if that happens, because I admire players with winning mentality, and that is how he is.”
Football came naturally to Jesus. His first coach, Mamede, who oversees a local charity side in Jardim Peri offering children sandwiches, coaching sessions and a place to enjoy themselves away from the dangers of the favela, nicknamed him “Tetinha,” a reference to the youngster’s constant claims that football was “simple”.
Jesus first started playing for Mamede’s charity setup as an 8-year-old and he has never forgotten his influence. In September, 11 years after they met, Jesus called him and offered to donate 250 pairs of boots to help the current crop of Jardim Peri youngsters under his guidance.
Football in the favela was undoubtedly tough – but it has been key to Jesus’s progress and helped him develop an insatiable appetite for the game. “They go into tackles to break your leg,” Jesus told the FIFA website about his várzea days. “Sometimes I’d play as many as three or four matches a day: I couldn’t get enough of it. It’d get to the point when my muscles would cramp up. It’s football. I can’t put my mind to anything else. I’m not interested in hanging out or partying. For me, it’s all about the pitch: training, playing. Even when I go home it’s football the whole time. I think I’m obsessed.”
It was clear from a young age that Jesus had something special, and after a period with amateur side Associação Atlética Anhanguera, where he scored 54 goals in 48 appearances, things began to move more quickly when he joined Palmeiras’ youth setup in 2013.
There was a huge expectation created around him, even before he made his first-team debut.
He made the step up look effortless. The goals were soon flying in and news quickly spread that the club had unearthed a real star; a player capable of reaching the very top of the game and helping to end Palmeiras’ long wait for a Brazilian league title.
“He was a consistent goalscorer for Palmeiras’s youth side and a lot of Palmeiras fans would go and watch the youth team, which they wouldn’t normally do, just because of him,” Tim Vickery, the BBC’s South American football expert, explains. “So there was a huge expectation created around him, even before he made his first-team debut.”
He went on to break the club’s academy goalscoring record with 37 in 27 in the Campeonato Paulista, Brazil’s under-17 state championships in 2014. The calls for him to be included in the senior side grew rapidly, so much so that during one match former Palmeiras boss Oswaldo de Olivera found himself arguing with a supporter behind the dugout who was shouting continually for Jesus’ inclusion. Oliviera later compared the hysteria surrounding Jesus with that of The Beatles during their 60s height; an exaggeration, of course, but one which highlights the unprecedented noise the club’s supporters were making about a youth team player.
Oliviera wanted to wait for the right moment. Eventually he relented and Jesus was given his debut on 7 March 2015, coming on in the 73rd minute of a 1–0 win over CA Bragantino at Allianz Parque. His first professional goal soon followed away to Agremiação Sportiva Arapiraquense on 15 July 2015, the winner in a two-legged Copa do Brasil tie.
But it was perhaps his goal against Cruzeiro that really announced his arrival; a run and finish of such remarkable quality it’s hard to believe it was scored by an 18-year-old. With the ball slipped through to him 20 yards from goal, he skipped past a defender with his first touch, before twisting and turning inside the area to put goalkeeper Fabio on the floor and finishing from a tight angle. It was the kind of undeniable quality usually reserved for the greats and the Palmeiras fans who had been calling for his inclusion felt suitably justified with their stance.
He starred at the Under-20 World Cup in 2015, scoring in Brazil’s opening game against Nigeria, a game that saw him come up against Kelechi Iheanacho, his new teammate at City. His performances at that tournament underlined his quality and when he returned to Palmeiras he became a regular in the side.
Palmeiras went on to win the Copa de Brasil, Jesus’ first major piece of silverware, and he was awarded the prestigious Golden Boy award at the end of his first season.
It was a fine debut season – but his progress since then has been even more spectacular.
It was becoming increasingly clear he was more than just a technically-gifted goalscorer. Playing in a position on the left, just behind a main striker, Jesus’ work rate and desire had also impressed. Pep Guardiola, whose personal phone call to Jesus in the summer helped persuade him to choose City over other potential suitors, demands every one of his players work hard and press the opposition out of their stride, and the Brazilian looks tailor-made for his system.
"I like to define myself as a fighter on the pitch," Jesus recently told FourFourTwo. "I like to be aggressive, trying to go forward. Since my early days I've been used to playing with older boys and strong defenders. I'm not scared of tough tacklers. I want to win - I'll fight to make sure we do."
I'm not scared of tough tacklers. I want to win - I'll fight to make sure we do.
His second season in professional football could hardly have gone much better. He scored three goals as Brazil’s under-23 side won Olympic Gold for the first time in their history, and he was moved into a central striker role for Palmeiras, taking on added responsibility and handling it with aplomb.
He agreed to sign for City in the summer, with offers from Europe’s top clubs on the table, but insisted on staying with Palmeiras to help them achieve their target of a first league title in 22 years. He was playing brilliantly – the best player in the Brasileiro – and the club’s dreams were fast becoming a reality.
With a league title in sight, he was called up to the Brazilian senior squad for the first time ahead of new Inter Milan signing Gabigol. It was a gamble by Brazilian coach Tite – but it’s a decision that has proven seismic. He handed him the sacred No. 9 shirt and asked him to the lead the line and score the goals his side desperately needed to reverse their fortunes.
Brazil were struggling in their South American World Cup qualifying group before Jesus began spearheading their attack. Since then, six wins from six have propelled them to the top of the group and they are now almost assured of their place at Russia 2018. Jesus has scored five goals and showed a fearlessness and belief that defies his age. He ended 2016 as Brazil’s top scorer, level with Philippe Coutinho, the first time since 2011 Neymar hasn’t taken the accolade.
And then came his career high, a league title with Palmeiras, secured with a game to spare after a win over Chapecoense, just days before the tragic air disaster that took the lives of many in their squad.
Jesus was the star of the league season, his 12 goals, five assists and countless man-of-the-match displays the catalyst for the club’s first championship since 1994. In total, he scored 26 goals for club and country over the course of the season.
In recognition of his status as the star of the league, he was handed the award for the best player in the Brasileirao, the official CBF award voted for by players, managers and journalists, and also won the Bola de Prata, the oldest award in Brazilian football, currently decided by ESPN Brazil.
And now, with fewer than 100 professional appearances to his name, he is about to embark on perhaps the most difficult challenge of his career. A quicker, more demanding league. Colder temperatures. A new city. There’s plenty of adapting to do.
He is set to become the 65th Brazilian to play in the Premier League and he deserves his chance. His performances in his homeland suggest he is equipped with everything he needs to excel.
From the streets of Jardim Peri to the star of Brazilian football, Gabriel Jesus’ rise is a special story.
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