Gabriel Jesus’s childhood football coach, José Francisco Mamede, was the least surprised of anyone when the boy‑faced wonder exploded on to the Premier League scene with Manchester City in February against West Ham United.
“I always knew he would turn out to be a top professional. When we had him as a boy I predicted he would turn pro, play for Brazil and get a big overseas transfer. It all happened exactly as I knew it would. Well, it looks like I need to make another prediction now: Gabriel Jesus will win the Ballon d’Or within three years.”
Jesus has barely stopped scoring or impressing in the matches he has played since that February night, although a foot injury last season did sideline him for two and a half months, and if City have the look of serious title contenders that is in no small part down to the 20‑year‑old forward.
Whereas last season Jesus’s impact forced Sergio Agüero on to the bench, this term they are forming a formidable strike partnership. Jesus has five goals from his last five games, including one on his Champions League debut against Feyenoord. His tally of 11 goals from 13 Premier League starts points to an extraordinarily smooth transition since his arrival from Palmeiras in January for what now looks a bargain initial £27m. Little wonder City are preparing to reward Jesus with a new contract.
A journey back to where it all began for Jesus reinforces the scope of his talent and the speed of his rise. Through a combination of dedication and the right guidance, Jesus went from playing on dirt pitches with no referee at 15 to being Brazil’s first‑choice centre‑forward four years later.
Mamede, the director of sports and one of the founders of Pequeninos do Meio Ambiente, the junior club where Jesus played his first competitive games, almost wells up with emotion when he tells the Guardian about his former charge. “The boy is a superstar,” he says. “It seems as though the ball looks for him when it’s in the area. He is always in the right place at the right time. And he’s always been like that.”
About as far north as it is possible to go within the sprawling city limits of Brazil’s biggest metropolis, São Paulo, in the grounds of a military prison, lies the pitch used by the youth football club.
Saturday morning training is a romantic scene. By the time we arrive, the sun is forcing parents and spectators to take refuge in the shade of the tall pine trees that surround the dry, uneven dirt pitch. As the young boys and girls aged between seven and 14 turn, skip and kick away, the baked-earth clouds that billow up are highlighted by shafts of light piercing through the foliage.
This is where Jesus’s football education started; dodging defenders double his size in the dust. To play on these pitches you need to develop a great first touch and speed of thought, as the bounce is unpredictable.
“It’s on dirt pitches like this that boys will learn how to control the ball,” Mamede says. “Football is simple. You don’t need to complicate it. I train the boys a lot like this: control and pass, control and pass. These bare-earth pitches develop a boy to become quick-thinking; he needs to be able to predict where the ball is going to arrive and where it’s going after he makes the pass. So he’s going to develop much better control than if he just plays on artificial turf. I think this is very important.”
By all accounts the young Jesus did not need much coaching, only a little love and support. Thankfully, he has always been guided by people with his best interests at heart.
Mamede wistfully recalls the first time he saw Jesus in action: “He arrived here, in flip-flops, about eight years old, and in the first game of the first training that he attended he scored a goal by dribbling around three much bigger boys and slotted the ball home with ease. I said to myself: ‘This kid is something special.’”
The coaches voluntarily give up their weekends to coach dozens of youngsters from the surrounding area. Mamede says he used to drive the boys to away games in his knackered old Beetle, often fitting up to 11 little footballers in the back. Inside the car he kept boots and kit to lend to players who would otherwise play barefoot.
It is not an affluent part of the city, with the surrounding area full of favelas, and many of the kids come as much for the free ham sandwich and juice as for the chance of playing in the team. Jesus, among others, used to receive a box of basic food provisions from the club to take home to his family. Mamede is rightfully proud of the work he and his small team do here.
“This club exists to take children off the street,” he says. “That’s why we love playing at the military base. We often arrive at away games to find there’s also samba and alcohol. This is never going to end well. I even get angry when I see dads smoking on the touchline. If you smoke and use bad language, the kid is going to do the same.”
With a heavy heart, he recalls attending the funerals of boys caught up with robberies and drug dealing. Jesus was never involved in this side of life, though, and Mamede remembers him as a singularly focused individual.
“Gabriel used to say that he never missed training, never missed a game. He was always first in line for exercises and drills – he wasn’t one of those who loitered at the back pretending to do the drill, like so many are … I’ve had at least 10 young players here who were as good, if not better than him, but they didn’t make it because they were lazy. Something that Gabriel never was.”
This application is combined with a quiet self-confidence that earned Jesus the nickname Tetinha, slang for “easy-peasy”. Any time the team spoke of the opposition, or needed another goal, he would smile and say “Tetinha!”
By all accounts he was like this on and off the pitch and everyone in the neighborhood where he grew up knows him by that word. The only thing that seemed to visibly trouble the young Jesus was losing a game of football.
“He would cry a lot,” recalls Mamede. “He hates losing even half a game. Imagine when we lost the final of the local championship. It was his last year playing with us, we arrived in the semi-finals to play a team who were four years unbeaten. They had a great team. We won 4-1, with all four goals scored by Gabriel. We then played Portuguesa [a professional football club] in the final, and we lost 3-1. Gabriel scored for us but we lost because they were so much better prepared, they had proper football boots, whereas our boys were slipping on the grass; we didn’t even have studs.”
This particular defeat stuck in the young player’s head. Toward the end of his final season at Palmeiras, under his own steam, Jesus returned to Pequeninos to deliver 250 pairs of new boots. “I’m the same as them,” he told O Globo Sport last October. “I’ve also had my problems. I think it’s really important for them to hold on to the dream they may one day realize.”
Jesus had a tough start in life. He grew up in very humble surroundings, in Jardim Peri, at the northern edge of São Paulo. He was the youngest of four children in a single-parent family. His father, who left his mother for another woman when Jesus was in the womb, died in a motorbike accident and had no part in the boy’s upbringing.
Despite or perhaps because of these hardships, Jesus never wavered in his pursuit of becoming a professional athlete. His neighbor in the community where his family lived, Maria Rosimar da Silva, recalls a “quiet, smiley kid, only interested in football”.
“His mum used to scream and shout for him to come in at night but he wouldn’t respond,” she says. “He just stayed in the street with his ball. He’d run out of the house with both hands clutching it, snot running down his nose.” She giggles. “I’d call him over to wipe it for him – he never let go of that ball.”
Jesus’s mum, Vera Lucia, is without doubt the single most important figure in his life and he has two tattoos to commemorate this. Maria describes her as a “warrior woman, who was always very persistent in achieving her goals”.
Those goals were to raise four children to be hard-working and respectful. “If you are black and poor, you need to study hard,” she would tell her kids and she made sure their school work was done on time.
Jesus has joked in interviews that his mum is the “toughest center-back he’s ever had to face” and that she was a mum and a dad for him, putting a loving arm around him or chastising him as needed. Vera put her first three children to work from the age of 12 to augment the income she received as a cleaner in the city but she recognized Jesus’s talent and desire from an early age and spared him to concentrate on his football.
She lived with her son in Manchester as he settled in, controlling his press commitments and making sure he is careful with money and girls. The Guardian had lined up a meeting with Jesus’s cousin but was told that “Auntie Vera has forbidden it”. She still calls the shots and is not to be messed with. It is this kind of treatment that will keep the new darling of Brazilian football’s feet firmly on terra firma, as more and more people clamor for a piece of the action.
Jesus is adored by the people who knew him growing up and he retains a strong connection to the area, where there is a mural with his image. “I can leave Peri,” it reads, “but Peri will never leave me.”
Even after becoming a local hero at Palmeiras, Jesus would often return to see friends after games and have a kickabout in the street. He also spent a lot of time there during the summer break this year, seeing old friends and playing football with the youngsters who now see him as a role model.
Another neighbor, José Cesaro Neto, showed us his “Jesus” Palmeiras shirt and describes him as “the same guy today as he was as a kid. Quiet, simple, normal”.
Jesus’s profile is in stark contrast to that of his good friend and Brazil strike partner Neymar. The two young forwards have the same tattoo, which they got before winning gold for Brazil at Rio 2016, depicting a young boy with a ball, looking up at the favela he calls home.
In Brazil, however, Neymar is generally viewed as a bit too obsessed with the showbiz side of his life. Jesus is understood to be the opposite: humble, honest and focused on nothing but his game. Whether Mamede’s prediction comes true will depend on many variables working in Jesus’s favor: team-mates’ form, staying free of injury, and not least being able to get free of defenders who will now be doubling up on him.
Should the stars align, there will not be too many surprised faces in the north of São Paulo if Brazil’s next Ballon d’Or winner turns out not to be the big-money man playing in Paris after all. Jesus has the Premier League, Champions League and World Cup in his sights over the next 10 months and no one who witnessed his rise would doubt his potential to be the oustanding player in all three.
For Jesus, though, it has always been one step at a time. Albeit a succession of very quick steps. Thanks to his dedication and two important “salt of the earth” guiding lights, Jesus has made his journey from the street kickabouts of Jardim Peri to the pressure cooker of the Premier League title race look easy.
Brazil’s No9 is the perfect combination of nature and nurture. The sky is the limit but critically, behind the scenes, he has a dedicated group of family and friends making sure his feet stay firmly on the ground.