Gabriel Jesus has taken the Premier League by storm, but Manchester City’s sensation has had to overcome a great deal of hardship to get this far. Pete Hall finds out how a kid playing football within the grounds of a military prison became Brazil’s star striker…
Remember Manchester United’s Kleberson, a World Cup winner tasked with helping fans forget expensive flop Juan Sebastian Veron? What about Edu, part of the Invincibles who orchestrated things in the Arsenal midfield alongside Patrick Vieira?
They are just two of a handful of Premier League Brazilian imports signed directly from the birthplace of Jogo Bonito. Philippe Coutinho, Willian, Fernandinho, David Luiz, Roberto Firmino and Robinho have all made their mark in the Premier League. Yet, what these six have in common is that they arrived in England having first cut their teeth in another European league.
Gabriel Jesus has joined that shortlist who have made the journey to England directly from across the Atlantic, but while Kleberson looked out of his depth in the English top flight right from the off, Jesus has made a mockery of the bedding in process at Manchester City to help spearhead one of the most impressive attacking sides in recent memory.
“Without Gabriel’s move to England, we would not be here now,” Renato Velasco, the agent of new Watford forward Richarlison tells Sky Sports. “He showed Premier League teams that you can buy straight from Brazil and be successful.”
Richarlison has also settled extremely well, with his humble upbringing credited with enhancing his determination to succeed. Jesus’ journey has taken him to the next level, but it started out in similarly difficult surroundings.
As a youngster in his native Jardim Peri, the first taste of anything that resembled organised football came in the grounds of a north Sao Paulo military prison, on the dirt pitches used by junior club Pequeninos do Meio Ambiente – it was the only option.
Then came the break that proved to be his springboard to greatness. Anhanguera is a social project, also in the north of Sao Paulo, that offered children aged between 13 and 16 the chance to play Varzea (Brazil’s version of amateur football or Sunday league) and those who showed willing, and ability, could leave the dustfields of prison grounds behind.
“The Anhanguera is a grassland football club born in 1928 and with a lot of tradition,” director Fabio Caran tells Sky Sports. “With mine and my father’s own money, we provide equipment, good pitches, kit and coaching, all free of charge.
“In order to find new players I took leaflets into schools and visited newsstands in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, mainly in the North zone where I am from.
“Of course we knew that not all players would become professional footballers, but we would let them train, because if they left the club they would be on the street all day, which can be a dangerous place in our neighbourhood. Gabriel was the star of our show. As soon as he came, we knew what we had.”
Jesus had his flaws like any raw teenage protege who had been playing football with his friends all his life, but his willingness to iron out such deficiencies impressed all who came across him.
“I have a player now who is as good ability-wise, if not better, than Jesus,” Caran continues. “But Gabriel always enjoyed training, he always did more than the others. My father was his coach for one year in our project and always worked on heading and kicking with his left leg which were not so good.
“He always listened to us when we gave advice on and off the field. In terms of dedication and willingness to train and train, Jesus was untouchable. That is what took him to the highest level. I got tired of training Gabriel! Only him and Wagner, who is a goalkeeper I had who plays in the Palmeiras Under-20s today, stayed long into the night. That’s rare, but look where the two are today.”
Watch Jesus score in Manchester City's 3-1 win over Arsenal
His background, Caran believes, plays a huge part in such drive and determination. Jesus’ mother is with him in Manchester running his affairs, and is the single most important person to the 20-year-old. In fact, he possesses two tattoos in dedication to her.
“Gabriel’s family is fantastic,” Caran adds. “Very united and always one helped the other. Dona Vera [his mother] always supported the four children practically alone. When I met her she worked three jobs.”
With the support and the facilities in place, things started to happen quickly for Jesus, and it wasn’t long before the big clubs came calling. Soon enough Palmeiras had snapped up the 15-year-old everyone was talking about.
“When he came to me, we played him in a friendly against the Under-15s in August 2012 and he stood out way above anyone else,” then Palmeiras youth coach Bruno Petri tells Sky Sports. “And after impressing our directors, he joined. He couldn’t play in the championship because of his age, so he trained with the Under-14s.
“He had been playing Varzea, so came without the responsibilities of playing for a big club from an early age. He enjoyed the simple things about football.
“In 2014 he was simply amazing in the Paulista [Under-17 state championship]. So many clubs wanted to buy him after that, but he was talked out of it by Fabio. He broke the record that year.”
After 37 goals in just 28 games in that incredible first year, it was clear this was no ordinary talent. Brazilian’s love their No 9s and, with the sight of Ronaldo bamboozling defences with incredible speed and trickery before rifling the ball home still fresh in the memory, Jesus was the new hope.
“I remember once a conversation we had and my wife asked him if he was prepared to be a great idol and be the No 9 of the Brazilian team,” Caran continues. “Because we were sure he would be. And he said yes. He was 17 years old. He had that look in his eye. He wasn’t joking.”
Midway through that record-breaking season with the Under-17s, Sao Paulo Futebol Clube came in for him, offering him an attractive deal and the potential for being fast-tracked into the first team. His head was turned.
“He just stopped scoring goals,” Petri says. “He could not concentrate, he was thinking of leaving. It was a very good offer.
“We had to send him to see a specialist, a kind of therapist, to get his head right. He just wasn’t himself. He realised that he must not rush these things. His time would come, we kept saying. Imagine if his head had been right for the whole season!”
The admirers were circling. His goalscoring feats for the Under-17s and the phalanx of rivals watching his every move lead to a fresh contract being put on the table less than a year after he had penned his first youth deal, this time with a big sell-on fee. That still didn’t deter many.
“In December 2014 a big company wanted to buy Gabriel and I said I did not want him to accept because we were going to stay at Palmeiras,” Caran, who represented Jesus as his agent in his early days, says. “I was sure he would play the next Olympics .
“The company said I was crazy. Did I not realise the player I had in front of me? They were angry. I have this message to this day in my WhatsApp.”
Palmeiras fans were calling for him to be included in the first team with the team threatened by relegation. A petition to get him on the pitch was even drawn up.
That first senior appearance wasn’t far away. Jesus scored four goals in his first season while winning the best newcomer award, and then helped Palmeiras to a first national championship since 1994 the following campaign. To cap it all off, he was named Bola de Ouro [player of the season].
Then came that Brazil Olympics Caran had been waiting for, and a first-ever footballing gold medal duly followed. Jesus could do no wrong, and it became clear Jesus had one particular admirer who wouldn’t be shaken off.
“One of the Man City scouts, Cadu, has known Gabriel since he helped us close the Adidas sponsorship [Cadu was a Adidas director] so I think it helped City make that decision.”
Less than a year later, and Jesus was a Premier League player, with injuries to Sergio Aguero thrusting him straight into the first team after joining in January. He finished last season with the best goal involvement stats in the division, and performed so well that Aguero often had to make do with a place on the bench.
This season, this time working in tandem with Aguero, Jesus already has 10 goals in all competitions. The results have been incredible to the untrained eye in England, but Petri saw it all coming.
“Even in training, he celebrated goals like he had won the cup final,” Petri continues. “He quickly played for Brazil’s Under-20’s. Then it was the next achievement. Nothing phased him.
“With his mother alongside, watching out for her boy, he is in good hands. He is not Neymar, he doesn’t go out, he doesn’t like the night life. All he is interested in is scoring goals.”
Now at home in the Premier League, leading Brazil to World Cup success is the next challenge. Seven goals flowed for Jesus in qualifying for the Russia showpiece, as Brazil brushed aside all who stood in their way. Brazil are a force once again, and the burgeoning relationship between Jesus and Neymar is already one to be feared.
So how has he achieved so much all before turning 21? And why hasn’t he needed a stepping stone in one of Europe’s lesser leagues before thriving in the Premier League? Caran believes it is an attitude honed back home that has helped shape his career, and with many under privileged kids inspired by Jesus, expect their eagerness to catch the eye of Premier League scouts on a more regular basis.
“Even when on holiday from Palmeiras, Gabriel would train with us at Anhanguera,” Caran adds. “These young players really want it, and I mean really want it. For a better life, for the medals. When you want it, you work hard. Jesus made himself an athlete, one who could go straight into any side. I have seen others, it is just whether they get their chance. Following Jesus’s example will set them on the right path.”