Gabriel Jesus was just 17 when his beloved Seleção suffered their crushing semi-final defeat to Germany at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He was pictured back then painting the streets of his Sao Paulo neighbourhood green and yellow, an image that went viral online.
Asked to recall that fateful day, Brazil’s current No. 9 was remarkably poised, keeping any emotions he might feel about it well in check.
“I’ve been playing football since I was six,” he said. “I was 17 and I’d been involved in a professional environment at Palmeiras. I knew what football was all about and so I didn’t take it as badly as some people who are outside the game.”
Now 21, Gabriel will be the youngest member of the Seleção side that will take on Costa Rica today in Saint Petersburg. Though as his answer above shows, he already sees himself as something of a veteran.
That mindset is probably the reason why he has not been singled out by the squad’s more experienced members for the kind of jokes typically played on new boys. As he himself says, he is no longer a child.
His maturity also explains why the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) asked him to attend a press conference three days before the team’s opening match, when the most normal course of action would have been to send a more experienced member of the squad along.
His media appearance came as even more of a surprise after a friend of his attended a closed training session in Sochi the day before and then posted a video of it online.
“It’s a good job I scored with the header. If I’d missed, it would have been in the news,” he told the assembled media. “At least he didn’t post anything tactical. I’d have got a telling-off if he had,” he added to much laughter.
The young striker faces bigger threats to his starting place than online video, not least as a result of Roberto Firmino’s superb season with Liverpool, which has led to a large section of the Brazilian media predicting a change up front.
“Let me be clear about this: it’s a positive thing to have two centre-forwards who are good enough to start,” said Gabriel. “It’s healthy to have competition for places and I’m very happy he’s in such good form. I’ll be cheering him on if he plays.”
Firmino has a compelling claim to a starting place, but then so does the current first-choice front man, not least because of his constant movement in attack and his work-rate. As well as pressing opposing defenders, Gabriel also tracks back tirelessly to help out in defence.
Another important factor is the faith that Tite has in him, which the coach has shown since his first game in charge of A Seleção: a challenging trip to Quito, where the striker scored twice on his international debut to help Brazil beat Ecuador 3-0.
Along with Neymar, Gabriel is also Brazil’s joint top scorer in the Tite era with ten goals. That return has caught the eye of experts such as Ronaldo, who paid a visit to A Seleção in Rostov-on-Don. “I think he’s looking very good and he’s maturing fast,” said O Fenômeno.
Gabriel has all the support he needs and is in confident mood, though he is well aware that appearing in your first World Cup is no easy task. “It’s not exactly a relaxing experience,” he said. “It’s the biggest competition in football and there are bound to be nerves,” he added, speaking like a true veteran.