Brazil had a ‘new Ronaldo’. Sure, we’d heard it umpteen times since O Fenômeno retired, but this time there were bricks behind the ballyhoo.
Gabriel Jesus was the leading marksman in the Campeonato Brasileiro. He’d been headhunted by Pep Guardiola and penned a pre-contract with Manchester City. Neymar's fifty million-plus Instagram followers had seen the Barcelona mega-star's pride at having matching tattoos with the Palmeiras prodigy. And even Ronaldo – a man who had side-stepped juxtaposing himself with emerging Brazilians as freely as he once side-stepped opponents’ challenges – labelled the 19-year-old as his heir apparent. Rio 2016 was presumably the concert at which the world would wow over what a Catalan professor and two of Brazil’s all-time top scorers already had.
Yet it couldn’t have begun much worse for the hosts or the hotshot. Brazil drew 0-0 – and that despite rank outsiders South Africa playing most of the second half at a numerical disadvantage. Gabriel Jesus vacated the Mane Garrincha grass in the scapegoat’s cloak. He’d attempted to pass to Neymar instead of singing solo. He’d spurned a half-chance. He’d missed a chance and a half, slamming the ball against the post when it seemed easier to slot it into an empty net. Iraq were next. So, too, was another 0-0. Gabriel Jesus was, despite Brazil being desperate for goals, hauled off after 55 minutes, replaced by a midfielder.
Rogério Micale nevertheless kept faith. Gabriel Jesus responded with some stimulating performances and three goals as Brazil went on to end a 64-year wait for Olympic football gold.
Gabriel found himself back in hype land. He also found himself in Tite’s maiden Brazil squad for the consequential FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers against Ecuador and Colombia – and leading the line as the Seleção strove to win in Quito for the first time since an unanswered Roberto Dinamite goal in 1983.
This time Jesus was in the jersey popularised by R9. And this time his Brazil bow proved blissful. Ronaldo had hailed Gabriel’s “pace, skill, movement and willingness to chase lost causes”, and he used those qualities to a tee to set up the deadlock-breaker just after 70 minutes. Jesus went on what seemed a merry chase, somehow caught and robbed Arturo Mino, skipped around goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez and drew the foul. Neymar concerted the resulting penalty.
Jesus made it 2-0 with an outrageous jumping back-heel from a Marcelo cross, and then scored a superb strike from the edge of the box to seal a 3-0 win. It elevated the five-time world champions to fifth – the intercontinental play-off position – in the South American preliminaries, one point shy of Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador.
“I couldn’t have had a better debut,” said Gabriel Jesus afterwards. “I have been working hard. Tite gave me confidence, just like the whole squad did. I had the support of everyone, from the coaching staff to my team-mates. Everyone is nice. They looked after me, left me to it on the pitch.
“For me everything is new. In three years all of this has happened, and today I was able to debut for the senior Seleção and score. I’m very happy – not just for the goals but for my performance and the team’s.”
Tite added: “I didn’t know he was going to play like that and score two goals – I can’t claim that. But we bet on the possibility of such success.
“I felt that the players have felt really pressured by the campaign. They’re human, they feel it. They feel all the expectation. Little by little you get to know them better. I didn’t know [Gabriel Jesus] would stand out that much, but I knew the ways in which he’d be able to impress.”
Much can change in minimal time on planet football. Ronaldo went “from the delight of just kicking a ball again to the depression of questioning whether I could play in a World Cup to the best moment of my career” in a few mid-2002 months. Gabriel Jesus has gone from joy to pain and back again in 28 days in mid-2016.
Has that rollercoaster culminated in a solution to Brazil’s striker squeeze?