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Gabriel Jesus: ‘I like a Challenge. The Biggest Battles Go to the Biggest Warriors’ | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Gabriel Jesus made his Palmeiras debut in March 2015 and has since won an Olympic gold medal and scored on his senior Brazil debut. Photograph: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

São Paulo – No one wants to be told off by their mother and Gabriel Jesus is no different. The Brazilian wonderkid, who signed for Manchester City in the summer for £27m and will join the Premier League leaders in January, has the potential to become one of the best forwards in the world but what makes him stand out even more is his desire to also help out defensively.

It is not a trait he shares with too many forwards but then they may not get a rollocking from their mother if they do not help out at the back. Gabriel Jesus does. “Yes, it’s true that my mother has a go at me when I don’t track back,” he says in his first interview with non-Brazilian media since signing for City. “We are very, very close and she demands a lot from me, which is great. She only praises me if I have done something worthy of praise. I am really happy to have a mum like that, who really cares. She always tells me the truth and her sincerity helps me a lot.”

Mrs Vera Lúcia is a constant and hugely positive presence in Gabriel Jesus’s life and that is no surprise considering his upbringing. The player’s father died when Gabriel Jesus was young and his mother raised him and his three brothers on her own. She was a cleaner back then and there was not a lot of money around. “A football player grows up faster than other people,” he says. “I grew up very quickly because of the difficulties and responsibilities that I have always had.”

Gabriel Jesus is a very mature 19-year-old. We meet at Academia de futebol, Palmeiras’s training centre and he is polite and humble. He does not wear sunglasses or headphones and does not play with his mobile during the interview. He starts by apologising for being late. “I had to do the ice bath,” he explains.

It has been a tumultuous 18 months for the man from Jardim Peri, a humble neighbourhood on the outskirts of São Paulo (it is a comunidade, a kind of favela, only a little bit more peaceful). In March 2015 he made his debut for Palmeiras after scoring 37 goals in 22 games in the Paulista Under-17 competition and at the end of the season he was named the best newcomer of the Brasileirão.

And that was just the beginning. This summer he won Olympic gold with Brazil and then made his debut for the senior team, scoring two goals in a 3-0 away win against Ecuador. And he is still a teenager. The former Brazil and Real Madrid striker Ronaldo, for one, is a fan: “When I see Gabriel I think about my own past. He has a fantastic journey ahead,” Ronaldo told TV Globo recently.

It is not that long ago Gabriel Jesus was playing for the amateur team Pequeninos do Meio Ambiente on the pitches of the military prison camp Romão Gomes. He moved on to Anhanguera but, unlike many prodigious talents these days, he did not join a top side – Palmeiras – until the age of 15 so his career was very much shaped by street football.

His childhood neighbourhood is always on his mind – and on his skin. On his forearm there is a tattoo showing a boy with a ball in his hand looking at a favela in front of him, dreaming of a better future in football. The tattoo is almost identical to the one that his friend Neymar has.

“I have always enjoyed working hard and that’s why I try to give my best tactically as well as going forward. From an early age, in my várzea days [a special type of Brazilian street football], I tried to take in all the instructions of all the coaches I had. I am the same today. After all, it is very important to enter the pitch knowing what I have to do to help the team.”

He no longer lives in Jardim Peri but goes back to visit friends. When doing so in December he was stopped by the police while driving his expensive car. “A dark-skinned boy cannot drive a nice car in the neighbourhood where he grew up without being stopped by the police. Everyone knows how hard it is to be black in our communities,” he wrote on Instagram.

He stayed in Jardim Peri until last year. He could have left for São Paulo as early as 2010 but the club did not offer him accommodation, meaning that he would have had to travel for four hours to get to and from training, and that would have had a negative impact on his school work.

Not that Gabriel Jesus paid too much attention to anything apart from football. “My whole life has always been football and that only,” he says. “Since I was six years old I’ve only really thought about football. I used to watch it on TV, play video games and so on. I just love football. Some people joke that I am too into it but football just sums up my life.”

His discipline is surprising for such a young age, and this is probably one of the things that has impressed Pep Guardiola, the manager who was desperate to bring him to City. Gabriel Jesus was a hot prospect even before the Olympics and City were able to beat off competition from Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain – partly because of a phone call from their new manager.

“It was a complicated decision, but in the end my desire to learn won,” Gabriel Jesus says. “The presence of Guardiola as a manager at City and the fact that it is a great club were very important factors in my final decision. Guardiola’s phone call was a huge part of me deciding to go there. It made me realise that I’d love to work with him. I don’t know him personally yet but he already made me feel very safe about his project there.”

Where will he play though? City are not exactly lacking in attacking talent with Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Nolito, Kelechi Iheanacho, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané and Jesús Navas able to occupy the forward positions. For Palmeiras Gabriel Jesus played wide on the left before Cuca, the manager, moved him into the centre with good results: 11 goals in 18 league games.

“I think I will fight for a place as a winger in the team,” he says. “I actually prefer playing as a left-winger rather than a striker, but I just want to be very clear that I’m willing to play in either position. I am often prepared to give up a position high on the pitch and help out defensively because some good marking and tackling can result in a goal for my team in the end. I’d like to think that I’m a versatile player.”

Only two years ago, during the World Cup, Gabriel Jesus was painting the pavement of his street in green and yellow as a fan. Today he is one of the reference points in attack for club and country. Palmeiras are challenging for the title, they beat Corinthians 2-0 at the weekend to stay top, and Gabriel Jesus desperately wants to leave for Manchester City having won the league. At Verdão he is an undisputed idol – “Glory, glory, alleluia, is Gabriel Jesus” is the song that all fans sing (even if it displeases his mother, who is a very religious person).

But even if he adds the Brazilian title to his Olympic medal, he will not get too carried away. “I try to manage my progress in a down-to-earth fashion,” he says. “Some players win a trophy and think that they are on top of the world. I don’t let it go to my head. People idolise me for winning the Olympics but I keep saying: ‘It is just a medal.’”

Arguably the biggest challenge lies ahead – forcing his way into City’s starting XI. “All this change does not scare me at all,” he says. “My life has always been full of challenges. Obviously this is a bigger one, but the best battles are given to the best warriors. I will listen to the manager’s opinion and his advice in order to improve and adapt as fast as I possibly can.”

The Guardian