'He Fell from the Heavens'

Gabriel Jesus started from the top; now he's here: a Brazilian scoring machine with more to prove than Neymar himself. Can this 20-year-old live up to the mega-hype? Sometimes you've gotta call home before you can get real.
Flinder Boyd@@flinderboydB/R Mag, Writer-at-LargeDecember 5, 2017

Inside Audio, a club in Sao Paulo, Brazil, samba music echoes off the walls. Men in short-sleeved shirts dance with women in tight-fitting clothes. It's past 11 p.m. and Thiaguinho, a local pop star, is on stage. Next to him, gyrating to the beat in a yellow Brazil jersey, is a guy dressed as a canary.

Word spreads throughout the place that the Brazilian players who have just defeated Chile 3-0 in the last round of South American World Cup qualifiers are on their way here. Thiaguinho stops a song midway through and shouts, "We're going to win in Russia," referring to the site of the 2018 World Cup. The canary throws up his fist in agreement. The crowd roars.

Three-and-a-half years ago, the scene in Brazil was the opposite. The national team had been left in ruins following a 7-1 loss on home turf to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal. National sports newspaper Lance! called it "the biggest shame in history." Futebol, once the foundational sense of pride for the country, could no longer be relied upon.

Even with Neymar, one of the best players on the planet, something had been missing for the Brazilian team since the last World Cup triumph in 2002. "It's been a long time that we have been saying that," says Elano, a former Brazilian national team player. Then, he adds, as if a higher calling had nearly been answered, "Jesus appeared."

Gabriel Jesus, at the age of 20, with his rags-to-riches tale and boyish face, has scored with such astounding regularity since being called up to the national team last year that he's quickly become Brazil's key to victory in Russia. But from an uneven start with his national team to instant international success in Manchester City, his come-up has been a ceaseless exercise in defiance. He is a prodigy, to be sure, but is Gabby Jesus really that miraculous as to embody the savior of his country's desperate prayers? Even the believers aren't so sure.

Jesus has quickly become one of Brazil's most promising players.
Jesus has quickly become one of Brazil's most promising players.(Getty Images)

Hours before Thiaguinho and the guy dressed as a canary take to the stage in Audio, fans file into Sao Paulo's Allianz Parque stadium to watch Jesus and his teammates take on Chile. The pitch sparkles, beer is cheap and with every samba-tinged step-over and juke move by Jesus, the crowd rises to its feet, ooh-ing and aah-ing. Attending a Brazilian national team match is every bit as glorious as you could imagine.

Outside Section 107, it's revelry. Rodrigo Hernandes, a sales associate from Sao Paulo, can't contain his excitement.

"Jesus will be better than Neymar and Ronaldo," Hernandes exclaims while wearing Jesus' No. 33 jersey from Palmeiras, his former club team, which plays its home matches here at Allianz Parque.

Others, though, remain cautious. Alvaro Rocha from Belo Horizonte, who claims he's "Brazil's biggest fan," says of Jesus: "I don't think he's as good as the media makes him out to be. He's not ready."

Being a footballing icon in Brazil can be suffocating, even at the best of times. Fans know that for every Pele and Neymar, there's a Denilson and a Kleberson, aspiring Brazilian futebol heroes who only sniffed at their vast potential, unable to live up to the mammoth expectations fans place upon them.

As the pressure builds and shifts onto Jesus' rail-thin shoulders, he seems to delight in proving these naysayers wrong. Throughout much of his early career, he played on a dirt pitch with players rejected by all the big clubs in Sao Paulo. He's been unshakable in his pursuit of glory, working his way up from a favela to the kind of Brazilian success tale that children are told about but rarely see. His story stands in direct contrast to that of Neymar, the larger-than-life superstar who seemed to have been anointed the World's Best Player from birth.

"Jesus doesn't have that attention-seeking quality like Neymar," says Petri, the Palmeiras youth coach. "Neymar is above the people. Jesus is seen as one of the people."
"Jesus doesn't have that attention-seeking quality like Neymar," says Petri, the Palmeiras youth coach. "Neymar is above the people. Jesus is seen as one of the people."(Getty Images)

Yet on the pitch against Chile, Jesus and Neymar seem preternaturally linked. A forward, Jesus commands the middle of the attack and glides across the field, overlapping and linking with Neymar and, at times, Philippe Coutinho. As Chile's defense turns or hesitates for a moment, Jesus explodes forward, then moves into spaces that seemed bottled up only moments before.

Through the first 54 minutes, the World Cup qualifier is scoreless before a Paulinho goal makes it 1-0. Then comes the moment the crowd has anticipated: Standing inside his own half, Coutinho finds Neymar running just to the left of the goal. His lofted through-ball hits Neymar perfectly in stride, and Neymar passes across the goal to Jesus, who has a simple finish. Then, in the game's final moments, Jesus outruns the entire Chilean team and scores his second goal.

In the locker room after the game, Bruno Petri, Jesus' youth team coach with Palmeiras, stops by to congratulate him. An exhausted Jesus shakes his hand and simply says, "I'm so relieved to have scored."

Jesus watched the notorious 2014 World Cup semifinal in his mother's living room in Jardim Peri, a working-class neighborhood in northern Sao Paulo. At the time, he was playing for the Palmeiras under-17 team and had famously taken a job painting Sao Paulo's sidewalks green and yellow, Brazil's team colors, before the World Cup. As the score of the semifinal became increasingly lopsided in favor of Germany, Jesus called his friend and teammate Gabriel Furtado. But when Furtado picked up, Jesus didn't know what to say. "We were just in shock," Furtado says now.

Flash back to nine years earlier: Jesus tags along with a friend to practice at Pequeninos FC, a tiny charity club funded by donations that travels to away games with 11 or 12 players squeezed into a Volkswagen Beetle. As the first practice starts on the club's barren pitch, Jesus' new coach, Jose Francisco Mamede, stands watching the eight-year-old with his mouth hanging open.

"He fell from the heavens," the coach says now, marveling at Jesus' precocious talent.

Soon thereafter, at 10 and 12 years old, Jesus was offered tryouts with the academy teams of established local clubs Corinthians and Sao Paulo, but the players were far better than any he had competed against, and the clubs deemed him either too small or simply not good enough.

He returned to play for Pequeninos, and when his mother would travel across the city to her job cleaning houses, his coach said he'd walk the mile-and-a-half to practice, internalizing his perceived shortcomings. When he finally caught the eye of Palmeiras' youth team at 14, it signed him to the squad.

"He had something to prove to everyone," Furtado says.

“He fell from the heavens,” Pequeninos FC head coach Jose Francisco Mamede says.
“He fell from the heavens,” Pequeninos FC head coach Jose Francisco Mamede says.(AP Images)

When his new team travelled to Qatar to play in a high-profile tournament against Danish and Qatari youth clubs, Jesus believed his moment had arrived. Instead, he bombed. He lost the ball often or was offside. Back home, his resignation turned to defiance, and he spent long hours on the training pitch perfecting techniques he'd failed to master as a schoolboy. The club had a joke: If you ask Jesus to practice 10 headers, he'll practice 20.

As the 2014 World Cup came and went, Jesus was still seeking recognition. That winter, his under-17 team played in the state championship tournament against the two youth clubs that overlooked him. At the same time, his coach, Petri, was dealing with his wife's death. In the quarterfinals against Corinthians, Jesus scored four times. In the semifinal against Sao Paulo, he scored three goals. In the finals, Jesus scored twice against Santos, Neymar's former club. After each goal, he'd run toward Petri, arms raised, and embrace his coach. "It was really special for me," Petri says.

Meanwhile, Neymar, who had missed the semifinal of the 2014 World Cup due to injury, was lighting up Europe with Barcelona. He was selected to lead Brazil and a group of primarily under-23 players at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to restore some semblance of sporting pride to the country, albeit in a second-rate tournament.

Jesus, who moved up to the senior team after his heroics in the state tournament, was picked for the Olympics alongside Neymar. Initially, their on-field partnership was uneven at best. Even as the team struggled through the group, eventually winning the gold-medal match, Petri will admit that Jesus "wasn't fantastic. You wouldn't come away saying he's an absolute monster."

But with a gold medal around Jesus' neck, the next six months were surreal. He played up his savior credentials, choosing No. 33 with Palmeiras because it is believed to be the age of Jesus Christ at his death, and then scoring one jaw-dropping goal after another. The signature goal of his Palmeiras career came against Cruzeiro. He outran the defense, then juked the goalkeeper twice before slotting home. He led his team, a perennial also-ran, to its first Brazilian championship in 22 years and was named player of the year in Brazil at the end of the 2016 season. Less than a month later, he was on a plane to England.

The goal-scoring record—15 goals in 24 Premier League matches—has been so sublime it's hard to believe Jesus only moved 11 months ago from Palmeiras to Manchester City, for a transfer fee of £27 million ($36.3 million). At the time, however, the British media saw the move as little more than a "punt, an interesting idea," as The Guardian wrote. "Jesus looks as though he's made of twigs, sherbet and tissue paper."

After only a few games, the 5'9", 161-pounder wasn't just City's understudy to Argentine Sergio Aguero, one of the best strikers in the world; he was splitting time with him, then replacing him in the starting lineup. After each goal, Jesus would put his thumb to his ear and his pinky to his lips. He told Petri that was a sign he was calling his mom. Look how far I've come, he could tell her.

"He's a cold-blooded guy," former Brazilian football player Elano says. "He doesn't run away from a tough situation. He goes for it head-on."
"He's a cold-blooded guy," former Brazilian football player Elano says. "He doesn't run away from a tough situation. He goes for it head-on."(Getty Images)

To the people of Brazil, the ascent to international superstardom arrived at the perfect time. The country has been dealing with its worst recession in a century and the biggest political scandal in its history. President Dilma Rousseff, embroiled in corruption allegations, was impeached in 2016, and her successor, Michel Temer, was also caught up in allegations of wrongdoing. Protesters have continually filled the streets over the last few years, wagging their fingers at the fat cats and the one-percenters.

Against that depressing backdrop last summer, Neymar pushed for the largest transfer and salary in futebol history, moving from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain. For many, it was excessive. Headlines like the one on Aug. 3 in the national paper Meia Hora—"In one night, Neymar will earn more than you do for six years of work"—didn't exactly endear him to fans. Jesus, on the other hand, has an origin story and a seemingly humble nature that aligns him more with the new Brazil.

"Jesus doesn't have that attention-seeking quality like Neymar," says Petri, the Palmeiras youth coach. "Neymar is above the people. Jesus is seen as one of the people."

With the fans' love comes attachment, then expectations. Jesus is aware that his goalscoring record for Brazil means he's no longer seen as the kid with potential. He's asked to be, along with Neymar, the great hope to restore futebol pride to a country that craves it, perhaps more than any other.

Elano, who sees what most Brazilians see from a distance, is encouraged Jesus will be able to deal with his newfound fame.

"He's a cold-blooded guy," he says. "He doesn't run away from a tough situation. He goes for it head-on."

Petri, who has known Jesus for much of his soccer life, remains more measured. "I'm not persuaded he'll able to deal with the pressure," he says. "If Neymar and Coutinho take the pressure, the team will benefit more."

"He had something to prove to everyone," teammate Gabriel Furtado says.
"He had something to prove to everyone," teammate Gabriel Furtado says.(Getty Images)

Back inside the dance club after the Brazil-Chile game, fans aren't ready to think about the difficulty of winning in Russia. They're too busy anticipating the team's arrival. As the caipirinhas flow, Thiaguinho pauses his set and looks up toward the mezzanine as a roar of approval tears through the crowd. Neymar is here.

Wearing a blue shirt and black pants, he perches on the railing overlooking the dance floor. He nods his head, soaking in the affection. Whatever anguish is left from 2014 has disappeared.

Then, in the shadows behind Neymar, fans recognize another player. Within moments, a chant starts slowly weaving its way across the venue:

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. It's Gabriel Jesus!

Neymar is all but ignored. The chant keeps building. Louder and louder.

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. It's Gabriel Jesus!

Jesus looks out meekly from under his black baseball cap, acknowledging the adoration, and smiles.

Flinder Boyd is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. A former writer at FoxSports.com, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, BBC Online and more, as well as multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. Before becoming a journalist, he played 10 seasons of professional basketball across Europe. He now lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @flinderboyd


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