So Good It’s Scary!

Just a cou­ple of years ago, Manch­ester City’s Gabriel Je­sus was run­ning around Kog­a­rah Oval in Syd­ney. Now he’s a global superstar...

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view Fe­lipe Rocha

The Manch­ester City team coach has just pulled up at their state-of-the-art train­ing com­plex, re­turn­ing af­ter a League Cup vic­tory at West Bromwich Al­bion. Given it is around 2am on a par­tic­u­larly soggy late-Septem­ber morning, the play­ers’ minds are more than likely set on a good night’s sleep and a well-earned lie-in. How­ever, Pep Guardi­ola, un­sur­pris­ingly given his pen­chant for push­ing the en­ve­lope, has got other ideas. Just a few hours later, the Cit­i­zens’ ex­pen­sively-as­sem­bled squad is back run­ning hard on one of the 16 out­door pitches within the City Foot­ball Academy. This far-from-re­laxed morning ses­sion is the sight that greets Four Four Two upon our ar­rival ahead of a meet­ing with one of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing young­sters in world foot­ball. Given his gru­elling pre­vi­ous 24 hours, Gabriel Fer­nando de Je­sus could have been for­given for be­ing a lit­tle re­luc­tant to spend his day talk­ing shop. But he bounds over to FFT with a smile as wide as the Manch­ester Ship Canal – although he does con­fess he has other things on his mind. Very im­por­tant things. “I’m dream­ing of get­ting home to eat rice and beans,” he says, be­fore spot­ting our pho­tog­ra­pher pre­par­ing a stick of candy floss for his photo shoot. If he’s tired, it cer­tainly doesn’t show, as our snap­per ma­noeu­vres our cover star through a se­ries of poses. “Can you scream for us, Gabriel? Could you play the drums?” The young­ster is only too happy to oblige, and he even bel­lows a few quick lines of Queen’s We Will Rock You into the bar­gain. When you have come to visit Brazil’s new­est bright young thing, you know you’re in for a good time. Mov­ing half­way across the globe is rarely a straight­for­ward process for a young man of Je­sus’ age, but this Sao Paulo na­tive has had lit­tle dif­fi­culty adapt­ing to his new life­style in the north of Eng­land. Af­ter all, this is a kid who has al­ready in­spired suc­cess with club and coun­try. In 2016 alone, he was Palmeiras’ top scorer in help­ing the Ver­dao se­cure their first league ti­tle in 22 years, and proved a piv­otal fig­ure in end­ing Brazil’s long quest to claim gold at the Olympics. Since then, Je­sus has also been a stand­out per­former for the Sele­cao’s se­nior side along­side global superstar – and best friend – Ney­mar. Pres­sure? This is a breeze! “To be com­pletely hon­est, I thought it would be a lot more dif­fi­cult to adapt to life in Manch­ester than it ac­tu­ally has been,” Je­sus tells FFT with the kind of non­plussed shrug only a 20-year-old can de­liver. “It’s been easy. I’m al­ready set­tled and this has re­ally helped me to per­form on the pitch. I ob­vi­ously miss many things about Brazil, but that’s just nor­mal. I’m feel­ing at home here now. Manch­ester has be­come Jardim Peri to me.” That speedy as­sim­i­la­tion is at least partly down to Je­sus recre­at­ing Jardim Peri, the bor­ough in the north of Sao Paulo where he grew up some 6,000 miles away, in the north-west est of Eng­land. The young­ster brought along his two best child­hood friends – Higor gor Braga and Fabio Lu­cio – to live with him un­der the same roof in Manch­ester. To­gether, the trio are liv­ing out­side their home­town for the first time. While Je­sus is be­ing put through his paces by Pep at the train­ing ground, Fabio and Higor are busy tak­ing English classes and mak­ing sure ev­ery­thing’s run­ning smoothly at their shared home. When the striker isn’t on club du­ties, or away with the na­tional team, they are un­likely to be seen apart. “We’re al­ways to­gether in our spare time – we like play­ing board games and video games, or go­ing shop­ping,” re­veals Fabio, aka Fabinho. “Higor and I were sur­prised and re­ally happy to get the in­vi­ta­tion to move to Eng­land with Gabriel. It’s a great op­por­tu­nity to live abroad.” Je­sus’ older brother, Fe­lipe, and their mother, Vera Lucia, com­plete the star­let’s en­tourage, with a Brazil­ian per­sonal chef also on hand to en­sure there is rice and beans on the ta­ble when­ever Je­sus re­turns home from an­other of those de­mand­ing train­ing ses­sions un­der Guardi­ola. No won­der he looks so at home in a sky blue shirt. Born in Brazil’s big­gest me­trop­o­lis back in April 1997 – when City were lan­guish­ing in the bot­tom half of what is now the Cham­pi­onship – Je­sus has al­ways lived and breathed foot­ball. Yet, although the clichéd im­age is a se­duc­tive one, it’s not en­tirely true to say this en­thu­si­as­tic young Brazil­ian was al­ways kick­ing a ball on the streets of his neigh­bour­hood as a kid. He does now en­deav­our to go home for a kick­about with lo­cal kids when­ever he gets a pause from his City du­ties, but it was ac­tu­ally in an­other re­gion of Sao Paulo, Horto Flore­stal, that his promis­ing ca­reer re­ally be­gan to take shape. When he was eight years old, Je­sus en­tered into Pe­queni­nos do Meio Am­bi­ente, a tiny am­a­teur club lo­cated in­side a mil­i­tary prison at the north­ern edge of Sao Paulo. The fact that Je­sus’ ini­tial foot­steps to foot­ball su­per­star­dom took place in­side prison walls quickly cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of jour­nal­ists fol­low­ing his suc­cess­ful move to Europe. “When the story first got out that I used to play in­side a prison, peo­ple started ask­ing me if I had been sen­tenced,” he chuck­les. “Yes, the pitch was in­side Rom Ro­mao Gomes prison, but it was mostly used by the po­lice and it was quite far away from the bad guys – I never felt afraid of any­thing there there.” “I used to get there very early in the morning – quite of­ten I’d leave home around 5am or 6am – and some­times it was still dark when I got out on the pitch so maybe I was afraid of that,” he ad­mits with a rue­ful smirk. Pe­queni­nos do Meio Am­bi­ente’s ground is pleas­ant enough, if poorly kept. Kids run around on an un­even clay play­ing sur­face, par­tially hidden by leaves that have fallen from the trees of the nearby Cantareira State Park. The place is bliss­fully quiet, with lit­tle noise be­yond the oc­ca­sional chirp­ing of bird­song. It feels more like a place of re­lax­ation than a clink. But it’s def­i­nitely a prison, and any doubters need only look at an omi­nous-look­ing sign raised slightly above pitch level be­hind the ground’s one con­crete stand: “No peo­ple al­lowed”.

Jose Fran­cisco Mamede is one of the founders of the club – and he is still at the helm to­day. Back in 1995, he reached an agree­ment with the mil­i­tary po­lice to use Ro­mao Gomes’ pitch ev­ery Satur­day morning for a com­mu­nity project. Ever since, the chil­dren of this hum­ble part of town have been wel­comed for coach­ing ses­sions and the chance to be a part of a suc­cess­ful team. It’s an un­paid po­si­tion that Mamede com­bines with his day job run­ning his own es­tate agency. But, as well as be­ing one of the founders, he is also the club’s sport­ing di­rec­tor and the man­ager. His weekly task-list at Pe­queni­nos some­times in­cludes pick­ing up the chil­dren as well. More than once, Mamede squeezed “10 or 11 kids” into his sturdy 1973 Bee­tle. Nor­mally Je­sus was among them, ei­ther an­noyed about a bad re­sult or mak­ing light of a rou­tine win. “Gabriel has al­ways been very com­pet­i­tive and self-con­fi­dent,” re­calls Mamede. “He could some­times be grumpy af­ter a de­feat. How­ever, more of­ten than not we used to win, and he’d come to us say­ing the vic­tory was a tet­inha [slang for an easy task]. Things al­ways looked so easy for him and we started to call him ‘Tet­inha’ – that’s his nick­name here. He’s a spe­cial boy who’ll never for­get his time with us.” In fact, ‘Tet­inha’ has gone so far to show he hasn’t for­got­ten his roots, he lit­er­ally wears his old com­mu­nity on his body, wher­ever he goes. On his right fore­arm, Je­sus has got a tat­too that shows a small boy hold­ing a foot­ball and look­ing dream­ily to­wards Jardim Peri’s makeshift houses. He has also used his body to ex­press his grat­i­tude to his mother. Two of his tat­toos are trib­utes to Vera Lucia – one a re­cently-fin­ished etch­ing of her face on his left arm (he as­sures us that she loves it, although also ad­mits she found sev­eral ‘in­ex­act’ wrin­kles in her inky du­pli­ca­tion). The other, his very first tat­too, is a writ­ten prom­ise that she will al­ways guide the way. By way of happy co­in­ci­dence, these trib­utes have also helped con­vince mum to green-light her son’s pen­chant for tat­toos. Vera Lucia, pre­vi­ously a house­keeper back in Brazil, is a sin­gle mother re­spon­si­ble for ed­u­cat­ing and guid­ing her four chil­dren. She’s still with­out doubt the most in­flu­en­tial per­son in Je­sus’ life. “My mum means more to me than just love,” he gushes, not hold­ing back. “I’m proud of her. I’m proud of hav­ing her as a mother. I’m proud of how she has raised me and my sib­lings. She was the one who taught me what’s right and wrong in life. She’s ev­ery­thing to me. Words can’t de­scribe what I feel for her, re­ally.” The big­gest in­flu­ence on Je­sus is also be­hind his trade­mark tele­phone goal cel­e­bra­tion. The ge­n­e­sis of the idea refers to a time when all Vera Lucia craved was hear­ing the voice of her son over the phone. It was the only way she could be cer­tain that lit­tle Gabriel wasn’t in trou­ble. Je­sus’ mother would do ev­ery­thing to reach her pride and joy. “The cel­e­bra­tion is a mix of my re­la­tion­ship with my friends and with my mum,” he ex­plains. “When I used to leave home at around 6pm to meet my friends, I al­ways knew at some point that my mum would call me, and if she couldn’t get hold of me, then she’d call my friends,” Je­sus laughs. “Even­tu­ally, ev­ery time I re­ceived a call, no mat­ter who was on the other end, me and my friends would all jok­ingly shout, ‘Hello mum.’ One of the lads then sug­gested that I should cel­e­brate a goal like that, and I did it in a match for the Sele­cao – it’s a trib­ute to my mother and to my friends.” How­ever, Vera Lucia’s in­put doesn’t cover just his recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties – she has some thoughts on Je­sus’ per­for­mances on the pitch as well. Guardi­ola might not be aware of it, but he has a se­cret as­sis­tant coach. Ap­par­ently Vera Lucia doesn’t like it when her boy is caught off­side too of­ten. She’s also a critic if, when the fi­nal whis­tle blows, his shot-count is low. And you thought be­ing told to tidy your bed­room was an­noy­ing. By the time Je­sus had ini­tially agreed to join Manch­ester City in Au­gust 2016, he had be­come a tar­get for pretty much all of Europe’s top clubs. As one of the game’s most sought-af­ter stars, he ex­pe­ri­enced pres­sure and me­dia scru­tiny like never be­fore. Af­ter a sen­sa­tional break-out year at Palmeiras – he fin­ished off the 2016 Brasileirao cam­paign not only as a cham­pion, but one of the top scorers – a switch to Europe seemed the log­i­cal next step. He chose the Eti­had Sta­dium as his des­ti­na­tion for one rea­son only: Pep Guardi­ola. And not sim­ply be­cause the striker thought the Cata­lan’s bril­liant tac­ti­cal mind would al­low him to flour­ish, but also be­cause of his per­sonal touch. Right in the mid­dle of the Brazil­ian sea­son, on what Je­sus thought was just an­other day, his tele­phone rang. This time it wasn’t his mum. “Guardi­ola called me up and said I would be a very im­por­tant part of his project,” Je­sus ex­plains. “This ob­vi­ously made me feel wanted and was a big fac­tor in help­ing me pick City as my next club. There had been a lot of clubs in­ter­ested in sign­ing me at the time, but the one I felt most con­fi­dent in was City.” From Jan­uary 3, their chats no longer needed to be con­ducted over the tele­phone. Pep was ex­cit­edly await­ing the ar­rival of his bright prospect. “When I landed in Manch­ester, I came straight to the train­ing ground – I didn’t even go to my ho­tel,” the striker says. “He wanted me there. It was 6pm and train­ing had been in the morning, but Guardi­ola waited for me to ar­rive. At this mo­ment, I re­alised he’s a dif­fer­ent kind of man­ager.” It didn’t take Je­sus long to make his $47 mil­lion price tag ap­pear like chump change. For a player of his age and na­tion­al­ity, his im­pact in the Premier League has been noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. It didn’t take him long to find his bearings. On his first league start for City, in Fe­bru­ary, he scored and pro­vided an as­sist for Kevin De Bruyne. From then on, Je­sus has con­tin­ued to pro­duce goals at an eye-catch­ing rate – 12 in his first 15 starts for the Cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing one on his Cham­pi­ons League de­but against Feyeno­ord in Septem­ber.

Yet while City are clearly feel­ing the ben­e­fit of Je­sus’ ar­rival, Palmeiras cer­tainly seem to have been hit hard by his exit – his old team are not en­joy­ing quite the same suc­cess as they did with their prodigy still on the books. “It’s rare to see a player with so much strength, speed and tech­nique – you just don’t see many of them around,” Palmeiras coach Cuca tells FFT. “When I set my eyes on him at his first train­ing ses­sion, I re­alised just how spe­cial he was,” adds the man who gave the star­let his pro­fes­sional de­but. “These qual­i­ties give him an im­por­tant ad­van­tage in mod­ern foot­ball: he’s ver­sa­tile and can play off ei­ther flank, as well as a striker. This boy’s a unique player.” It’s there­fore no sur­prise Pep Guardi­ola fell in love with Gabriel Je­sus. That kind of ver­sa­til­ity is ex­actly what the City coach craves in his team, so there can be few things more ex­cit­ing to the Cata­lan than dis­cov­er­ing a young, mul­ti­func­tional player – af­ter all, his en­tire foot­balling ethos is built around fluid move­ment. And Pep isn’t the only one as­tounded by Je­sus’ in­creas­ing phys­i­cal and tech­ni­cal prow­ess. Sele­cao boss Tite, talk­ing on one of Brazil­ian TV’s most pop­u­lar foot­ball-ded­i­cated shows, com­pared the for­ward’s strength and power to that of a horse. Even his in­ter­na­tional team-mates – who are used to rub­bing shoul­ders with the best foot­ballers on the planet, if they aren’t al­ready in that cat­e­gory them­selves – have been blown away by what the 20-year-old can do on the pitch, be that in the sta­dium or on the train­ing ground. “What he does on a daily ba­sis in train­ing is amaz­ing,” says full-back Danilo, one of the four Brazil­ians in the Blues’ squad. “His ma­tu­rity and un­der­stand­ing of the game are rare for a kid of his age. “The great thing about him is that he’s still a long way from his peak, but he’s al­ready one of the best strik­ers in the world,” adds the two-time Cham­pi­ons League win­ner with Real Madrid. An­other of his com­pa­tri­ots at City, Fer­nand­inho, has been play­ing an in­te­gral role in Je­sus’ adap­ta­tion, both to the Premier League and life in Eng­land. The mid­fielder is a broth­erly fig­ure to his younger team-mate, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to nav­i­gat­ing the city of Manch­ester. He has pro­vided valu­able tips for places to visit – or avoid – in the lo­cal area and also acts as the for­ward’s in­ter­preter ev­ery now and then. Be­fore Je­sus moved to the UK, the pair al­ready knew each other from their time to­gether with the na­tional team, so as soon as Je­sus heard of City’s in­ter­est, there was one man he knew he had to call. “I talked to Fer­nand­inho sev­eral times be­fore sign­ing for Manch­ester City,” Je­sus tells FFT. “He told me that although the city was very cold, the club was sen­sa­tional and would fight for big ti­tles. That was all I needed to hear. Play­ing in the Premier League, which is the best league in the world, was my dream.” Ask Fer­nand­inho to list some of his com­pa­triot’s best qual­i­ties and he won’t name a tech­ni­cal skill, rather the type of per­son­al­ity traits which mark peo­ple out for suc­cess in any walk of life, like per­sis­tence and the hunger for con­stant im­prove­ment. “The boy has got his feet on the ground,” Fer­nand­inho, who joined City from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, says of his new club col­league. “I have been im­pressed by his will to work, and by the way he pays at­ten­tion to Guardi­ola’s in­struc­tions and ad­vice. You can tell that he loves his job. If he doesn’t get some­thing quite right, he’ll go and try it again and again un­til he does. Gabriel has got a bril­liant fu­ture ahead of him, and it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore he ful­fils all of his dreams.” One story from Je­sus’ time with Palmeiras cor­rob­o­rates Fer­nand­inho’s tes­ti­mony. At the time, Gabriel had al­ready agreed to join Manch­ester City and was head­ing off to Manaus with the na­tional team for a World Cup qual­i­fier. The lo­ca­tion of Eng­land’s 2014 World Cup de­feat by Italy, Manaus is in north­ern Brazil, around 2,500 miles from Palmeiras’ home city of Sao Paulo. “Gabriel played for Brazil on the Tues­day night, but he knew we had an im­por­tant lo­cal derby against Sao Paulo on Thurs­day,” re­calls Cuca. “So he asked the board for a pri­vate jet to pick him up in


Manaus, so he would be back in time for the derby. He didn’t need to do that, but he was so des­per­ate to play and help his team-mates.” Hav­ing played the first 86 min­utes of a cru­cial 2-1 vic­tory over Colom­bia, Je­sus dashed home quickly enough to take a place on the sub­sti­tutes’ bench for the league clash at Arena Palmeiras. He en­tered the fray in the 54th minute with his team trail­ing 1-0. By full-time, Palmeiras had fought back to beat their city ri­vals 2-1. But de­spite the smil­ing and laugh­ing, it hasn’t all been plain sail­ing for Je­sus since ar­riv­ing in the Premier League at the be­gin­ning of the year. He scored three goals in his head­line-grab­bing first five games for City, in­clud­ing a 92nd-minute win­ner against Swansea – an im­pact strong enough to dis­place Ser­gio Aguero from the start­ing line-up. Then fate stopped him in a way the Premier League’s de­fend­ers had been un­able to. In just the 15th minute of his sixth ap­pear­ance in Eng­land, against Bournemouth, the Cit­i­zens’ new dar­ling was forced off with a frac­tured metatarsal. Sud­denly, af­ter an elec­tri­fy­ing start, Je­sus was fac­ing the prospect of a 10-week spell on the side­lines. “It was one of the most dif­fi­cult pe­ri­ods of my life,” he ad­mits, his shoul­ders slump­ing slightly. “It was the first ma­jor in­jury of my ca­reer. I have ve never been side­lined for such a long time. The last time some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened to me, I was 10 years old at varzea [Brazil­ian grass­roots foot­ball]. “For or a month, I was re­ally down. What­ever I did, I just couldn’t feel happy. All I could think about was my in­jury and miss­ing the chance to be in­volved in those matches. . It was tough.” De­spite his time off from the pitch, Je­sus didn’t dis­ap­pear en­tirely from the news – par­tic­u­larly at home. The at­ten­tion he re­ceives from the Brazil­ian me­dia mir­rors that thrust on fel­low coun­try­man Ney­mar in his early days with Barcelona. The big­gest me­dia out­lets in his home­land un­der­stand the lure of Je­sus’ name in a head­line, a fact that won’t be lost on any­one who’s seen the many puns on his moniker since ar­riv­ing in Eng­land. But this is some­thing he ex­pected. “When I de­cided that I wanted to be known as Gabriel Je­sus, I knew there would be some jokes,” he tells FFT. “But there is no rea­son to hide my name. I don’t care about the jokes, as long as they are re­spect­ful. To be hon­est, I don’t re­ally fol­low a lot of sports cov­er­age – I just pre­fer to en­joy more time with my fam­ily.” Ev­ery as­pect of his rou­tine – on and off the pitch – gar­ners sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion from the ador­ing pub­lic at home. Both Brazil­ian web­site UOL and Es­porte In­ter­a­tivo, a sports TV chan­nel, now have cor­re­spon­dents based in Manch­ester. But it’s not just in­ter­net traf­fic and TV au­di­ences the charis­matic for­ward is gen­er­at­ing. As a con­se­quence of his grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity, he’s be­come a valu­able com­mod­ity to ma­jor brands. In June, Je­sus was an­nounced as the new client of Oc­tagon Brazil, the na­tion’s largest sports and en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket­ing agency, who count Ron­aldo among their share­hold­ers. Two months later, he re­vealed his maiden per­sonal sponsorship con­tract with Am­bev – the big­gest brew­ery in South Amer­ica. The shy, in­tro­verted boy from Jardim Peri is sud­denly soar­ing to­wards su­per­star­dom – and if his suc­cess on the pitch has not come as a huge sur­prise to his fam­ily, friends and for­mer col­leagues, this lat­est el­e­ment of his be­ing cer­tainly has. “Gabriel has al­ways been a quiet and re­served boy,” his mother Vera Lucia tells FFT. “Be­com­ing a foot­baller has al­ways been his only goal in life. I’m very proud he made it, and so happy that he wants me be­side him.” Yet Ron­aldo is far more than just a busi­ness part­ner to Je­sus. The pair have be­come friends af­ter meet­ing while record­ing shows for Brazil­ian TV. On one such oc­ca­sion, the young­ster greeted all of his fel­low guests be­fore say­ing hello to ‘Mr Ron­aldo’. He later ex­plained it was due to his deep re­spect for O Fenomeno. Last year, Ron­aldo re­vealed that he sees many sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Je­sus and his younger self. The ex-Barcelona, In­ter Mi­lan and Real Madrid No.9 lifted two World Cups with Brazil (and is the sec­ond-high­est goalscorer in the com­pe­ti­tion’s his­tory) on top of a cav­al­cade of do­mes­tic hon­ours. He was crowned FIFA World Player of the Year three times and won the Bal­lon d’Or twice over the course of an ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer so, nat­u­rally, it is a com­par­i­son that the Blues’ new boy wel­comes. “It’s great to hear such things from him,” Je­sus beams. “It makes me feel very proud. Ron­aldo is a role model to me and he has al­ways been my idol. It shows I’m do­ing the right things.” Com­par­isons be­tween Ron­aldo and Je­sus be­came ubiq­ui­tous af­ter the for­mer’s procla­ma­tion, but not with­out some ques­tion­ing their va­lid­ity. It’s im­pos­si­ble to fore­see whether Je­sus will match his hero’s suc­cess dur­ing his ca­reer, but that shouldn’t mat­ter for the time be­ing. Be­sides, the com­par­isons are largely made to high­light his mas­sive po­ten­tial as much as the pair’s shared style of play, and some phys­i­cal par­al­lels, too. Je­sus pos­sesses the same rare fu­sion of strength, speed and tech­nique that made his il­lus­tri­ous pre­de­ces­sor in the na­tional team such an icon. These sim­i­lar­i­ties – al­lied to the fact he is ar­guably the best true No.9 to emerge from Brazil since Ron­aldo – have got ev­ery­one back home very, very ex­cited in­deed. At the time of Je­sus’ ar­rival in Europe, how­ever, there was un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing his re­la­tion­ship with an­other striker. The ad­di­tion of Je­sus to the City squad seemed to have an un­set­tling ef­fect on Ser­gio Aguero. The 29-year-old Ar­gen­tine was quickly dis­lodged from his perch as the line-lead­ing striker and fo­cal point – the first time this had hap­pened to him since ar­riv­ing from Atletico Madrid back in 2011. At that stage, given Pep’s pref­er­ence for op­er­at­ing with a sin­gle cen­tre-for­ward, it ap­peared the chances of Pep de­ploy­ing both South Amer­i­cans to­gether were slim. Pre­dictably, the press were quick to pon­tif­i­cate about how City le­gend Aguero would re­act to this threat to the sta­tus quo. And, un­sur­pris­ingly, u trans­fer talk soon fol­lowed, forc­ing Guardi­ola to in­sist on sev­eral oc­ca­sions that he was in­tent on keep­ing hold of a player who at the time still had the best goals-to-min­utes ra­tio in Premier League his­tory. Je­sus’ in­jury quickly quelled any po­ten­tial cri­sis, and upon his hi re­turn any fears of a tense re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pair were quashed in the best way pos­si­ble. Op­er­at­ing as part of an in-vogue 3-4-3 for­ma­tion, Aguero and Je­sus have given fans a glimpse of a bright, har­mo­nious fu­ture. Both be­gan the sea­son in top form and their part­ner­ship now looks a par­tic­u­larly lethal prospect. Guardi­ola him­self has re­cently claimed that the pair have got a “top re­la­tion­ship” off the pitch to match their blos­som­ing as­so­ci­a­tion on it. An in­struc­tive sign of the ve­rac­ity of his words came with Aguero’ Aguero’s self­less as­sist


to his team-mate against Liver­pool in early Septem­ber. The Ar­gen­tine was ar­guably in a bet­ter po­si­tion to score, but pre­ferred to roll the ball to his col­league. “He wel­comed me warmly when I first ar­rived at the club,” Je­sus says of his strike part­ner. “I’m a mem­ber of a squad and I like to help – I’ve been help­ing him and he’s been help­ing me. He’s an es­tab­lished player not only at Manch­ester City, but in foot­ball. “At City, he’s the ul­ti­mate idol be­cause of ev­ery­thing he has done for this club, all the goals he’s scored and be­ing here such a long time. The fans love him. I’m very happy he’s on top form and it’s pos­i­tive for the club. . We all know that when Aguero’s on the pitch, he can score in any mo­ment and win us the match.” Their ‘top re­la­tion­ship’ off the pitch sug­gests their un­der­stand­ing on it could yet be­come all the more ben­e­fi­cial for City. The South Amer­i­can duo have got ev­ery­thing needed to be­come a deadly part­ner­ship in the mould of ar­che­typal Premier League duos such as Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. And like that pair­ing, who achieved so much suc­cess across Manch­ester, City’s new front two are ably as­sisted by a glit­ter­ing ar­ray of at­tack­ing tal­ents. You’re un­likely to hear Guardi­ola com­plain­ing om­plain­ing about his at­tack­ing op­tions, but with Ra­heem Ster­ling, Kevin De e Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, David Silva and Leroy Sane on their books, can the Blues’ of­fen­sive ar­se­nal le­git­i­mately be com­pared to those of PSG, Barcelona and Real Madrid? “Yes, I be­lieve so,” the young­ster says, con­fi­dently. “Ob­vi­ously, Barcelona and Real Madrid have the two best play­ers in the world, but in terms of at­tack­ing op­tions in gen­eral I think City can be com­pared to any team, be­cause we have got top-qual­ity qual­ity play­ers.” Je­sus is re­luc­tant to pick a favourite out of Lionel Messi and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo. And any men­tion of the men with the ex­trater­res­trial records nat­u­rally leads to a ques­tion about the be­lief in his own po­ten­tial and whether he can scale sim­i­lar heights. Je­sus isn’t get­ting car­ried away. “I need to work re­ally hard and im­prove a lot, and that’s what I’ll do,” he says. “Hope­fully in the fu­ture I can be among the best play­ers in the world, but there is a long way to go. There are cur­rently sev­eral play­ers who de­serve the hon­our. For me, I see it as some­thing far away. For now, I just want to win matches, ti­tles and be happy.” The Manch­ester City for­ward places his com­pa­triot Ney­mar third in the list of the world’s best play­ers, and PSG’s $350m mega-sign­ing has also had a hand in Je­sus’ early rise. The flam­boy­ant star – un­doubt­edly the most im­por­tant Brazil­ian foot­baller of his gen­er­a­tion – has taken Je­sus un­der his wing dur­ing their get-to­geth­ers with the Sele­cao. If you think Je­sus’ im­pact in Eng­land has been im­pres­sive, his suc­cess with Brazil, given the con­text of his op­por­tu­ni­ties, has been even more re­mark­able. His first big test in the fa­mous yel­low shirt came at last year’s Olympics, per­haps not the most cov­eted ti­tle in most cor­ners of the globe, but an absolutely huge one for Brazil­ians. Not only was it the only in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ment they had never won, but they were com­ing off the back of a dis­as­trous World Cup on home soil, which cul­mi­nated in the earth-shat­ter­ing 7-1 drub­bing to Ger­many in the semi-fi­nal. And there had been two ex­tremely poor show­ings at the Copa Amer­ica. As a con­se­quence, there was enor­mous pres­sure on the play­ers to par­tially re­store a tar­nished rep­u­ta­tion. So, while for many coun­tries the un­der-23 event in Rio was a bit of an af­ter­thought, Brazil – af­ter a wran­gle with Barcelona about his re­lease – sent Ney­mar as their cap­tain. It paid off, not just in gold medals but in the nascent signs of a Ney­mar-Je­sus axis that prom­ises to be cru­cial for the five-time World Cup win­ners’ im­me­di­ate fu­ture. “My re­la­tion­ship with Ney­mar is very good – I think of him as an older brother,” Je­sus says. “He’s been help­ing me a lot. We all know the player he is, but I’m more im­pressed with the per­son he is – the way he treats peo­ple. I was amazed to see his be­hav­iour. I’m a big fan.” Twelve days af­ter win­ning that gold medal, Je­sus made his de­but for Brazil’s se­nior XI. At that point, the Sele­cao were in sixth place of South Amer­ica’s in­fa­mously tricky World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion group. Je­sus bagged a brace in a 3-0 win in Ecuador, im­me­di­ately se­cur­ing a reg­u­lar berth in Tite’s side. With the young­ster in the team, Brazil fin­ished the qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign 10 points clear at the top of the stand­ings thanks to an­other four Je­sus goals. A star had been born. It’s some­thing of a lo­cal cus­tom in Jardim Peri to pa­tri­ot­i­cally paint the streets in the na­tional colours to mark the ar­rival of an­other World Cup. Less than four years ago, Je­sus and a group of friends helped daub the streets in green and gold, high­light­ing ex­actly how soon all this suc­cess has come to the for­ward. “For the past three World Cups I have painted the streets to cel­e­brate the com­pe­ti­tion – it’s al­most an obli­ga­tion for the com­mu­nity,” he says. “Hope­fully I will get the chance to play at the World Cup next sum­mer to re­pay all the joy it brought me me. But there’s still a full sea­son to be played be­fore the World Cup. I still need to earn a place in Rus­sia and I’m work­ing re­ally hard to get it. I want City to have a great sea­son and the only way that will be pos­si­ble is by win­ning ti­tles. That’s my goal. Hope­fully we’ll lift a tro­phy.” When Je­sus first re­vealed that he used to paint the streets, he pub­lished an ac­com­pa­ny­ing pic­ture on his In­sta­gram page that in­stantly went vi­ral. One of the hash­tags read: “I’ve al­ways been a dreamer dreamer.” Just like the small boy hold­ing a foot­ball foot­ball, gazing at the streets of Jardim Peri Peri, that he now has etched on his arm, Gabriel Je­sus has a whole world of pos­si­bil­i­ties ahead of him. His mere pres­ence at the World Cup fi­nals in Rus­sia next sum­mer is not enough. “I have a dream that goes be­yond just play­ing at the World Cup – I want to win it,” he re­veals. Do that, and Je­sus will be able to scoff all the rice and beans that he wants.

Por­traits Jon Enoch

Pep Guardi­ola

Above Gabriel slots in City’s third dur­ing the 5-0 rout of Liver­pool in Septem­ber Be­low The rea­son he joined the Blues:

Above Call me: Je­sus ex­plains his trade­mark goal cel­e­bra­tion to his beloved mother, Vera Lucia Be­low Get­ting his hands on the 2016 Brasileirao tro­phy – he scored a dozen goals as Palmeiras bagged a first ti­tle since 1994

Top Deadly duo: Je­sus forged a strong bond with Ney­mar as Brazil won gold at the 2016 Olympics Above right Back home: the striker in Sao Paulo with old mate Rodolfo Gau­cho Right Tough break: he was out for 10 weeks af­ter metatarsal woe against Bournemouth

Above High achiever: Je­sus scored his first goal in the Cham­pi­ons League at Feyeno­ord

Left Sele­cao self­ies as Brazil cel­e­brate gold

Be­low “Ul­ti­mate idol” Aguero helped Je­sus set­tle in Manch­ester

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