Most Brazilians remember the first time they saw the Seleção lift a trophy. For Gabriel Jesus, it was the World Cup, a trophy he is yet to get his hands on as a player. “I remember that a neighbour of ours placed an old tube TV on the street and everyone gathered round to watch a game during the 2002 World Cup,” he says. “I can’t remember who we were playing but there was a great party afterwards. I guess it was the final because we were all so happy. That’s a memory I wish to repeat but on the field this time.”
Jesus knows he will face competition to lead the line for Brazil at the World Cup next year but he has clicked into gear nicely at Manchester City recently. He has scored three goals in his last four games to help the club maintain a run of 13 straight wins and establish a lead at the top of the Premier League. If City can win at Anfield on Sunday for the first time since 2003, they will go 10 points clear of the current champions.
However, Jesus expects the title race to be close, with Manchester United and Liverpool the main threats. “We have won the title before with Manchester United runners-up in the 2017-18 season, and with Liverpool second in 2018-19. Last season we had the opportunity to go all the way too, but fell short. We started this term with a few bad results, but our players and Pep have been talking, learning how to perform better and how to establish some sort of rhythm. We have lost some players, such as David Silva, and others came in. When this happens, it takes time to learn how to play as a team again.
“We have always been constant at City. There have been bad matches, of course, but I don’t think we have to focus on what other clubs are doing because it is only up to us to seal our victories. Our style is the same – we like to play, have the ball and go strong on the attack – but it is important to notice that Pep changes the tactics for every opponent we face. There is no recipe to win against them all. We have to adjust some things against every side.”
Jesus was just 19 when he moved to Europe. Although Brazilians are crossing the Atlantic at increasingly younger ages, he insists the Brasileirão is one of the hardest leagues in the world. Some things, however, make the game easier in Europe. “There are a few things that I feel we need to improve in Brazil, such as the quality of the pitches. You watch the game from afar and you realise that the field is not that beautiful, not that good to play on, but this is not a problem in Europe. I have the same schedule of games as I had in Brazil but, what makes things a bit more tiring there, is that the trips to away games are very long. Here I have two games every week, but it takes less time to travel, so it is better to recuperate for the next match.”
When Jesus signed for Manchester City in August 2016, he was in Rio preparing to play for Brazil at the Olympics. He had some unfinished business before moving to England. “I had been a professional for only two seasons in Brazil,” he says. “At the Olympics, when the deal came through, I had this feeling of leaving a beautiful story behind – of giving something back to Palmeiras, you know? The club invested so much in me and I wanted them to feel all the love that I still have in return. So, I asked to be with them until the end of the Brazilian season because I wanted to be a Brasileirão champion with that squad, with my friends. To be honest, I feel that this was just one chapter of my story with Palmeiras. There will be more in the future.”
Though his memories of 2002 are sketchy, Jesus has enjoyed every game the Seleção have played thereafter. For the World Cups in 2006, 2010 and 2014, he painted the streets with his friends. Putting the country’s flag and colours on the pavement and on lampposts, he also asked his neighbours to chuck a little money towards a party for the community.
He laughs when he recalls how he would ask his friends not to make him draw anything because he was so bad at it. He had other obligations at the World Cup in 2018, when he became the country’s No 9. While he was playing Russia, pictures of him painting curbstones four years earlier in Jardim Peri, a tough part of northern São Paulo, went viral.
Most of what we see Jesus doing on the field now – fighting for the ball, dribbling past opponents and helping teammates – was learned while playing in his city’s amateur várzea league. He grew up copying Kaká, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, and hoping he would emulate them, but even he is surprised at how swift his rise to the top has been.
“I never imagined all these changes would occur in just four years,” he says. “I always believed in myself, in my talent and my work ethic, because I am very dedicated. It was not the World Cup that I dreamt of [in Russia], but experiencing it was still good. It makes me want to give my best in every game here in Manchester, because I want to be called up by Tite for the Seleção’s next games, to be in the 2022 squad and to make it better and very different from what happened in 2018. I feel I am playing well, helping those around me in matches, but I admit that I need to improve my finishing. Sometimes I make a pass when I should shoot instead, but there is room to grow and time to learn.”
The World Cup is the big one for Jesus, but he has already tasted glory with the national team, winning gold in Rio in 2016 – the Brazil team’s first triumph at the Olympics. The competition started badly for Brazil, and fans began to wonder if the pressure of being the hosts and favourites was too much for the players. “It’s common to say that a person goes from heaven to hell. In our case, it was the other way round,” says Jesus.
“We had two draws in the first couple of games and people were already thinking we would not win the Olympics. We got together, sorted out what we could improve and it ended up working. It seemed like an entire lifetime went by in a matter of days. Then we beat Denmark 4-0 and went on to win it all. We played for each other every game after that and it’s my fondest memory in my career so far,” he beams.
At 23, Jesus already has a few big titles on his CV. And now, with Manchester City hitting top form and Brazilians starting to turn their thoughts to the World Cup next year, he feels he can add more.