Gabriel Jesus remains grounded as hype in Brazil grows around him
Just as she does before every game, Vera Lucia texted her son last Thursday to wish him luck and check if he had drunk her "miraculous" banana and oat smoothie, which she swears by as a potion for avoiding cramps. And she surely did some stretches ahead of her postgame ritual, in which she kneels down and apologises to God on behalf of supporters, journalists and whoever else resorts to puns relating to the family's last name.
There are always a lot of them when her youngest child, Gabriel Jesus, does well on the pitch, including adaptations of religious songs to suit his goals and dribbles at Palmeiras, the club he will leave in December to join the Pep Guardiola show at Manchester City.
How could the behaviour be different after Jesus scored a brace at his Selecao debut, a 3-0 win over Ecuador in the South American World Cup qualifiers, becoming the first player since the 1940s to do so in an official match? By the way, this is a feat that Brazil legends such as Pele, Ronaldo, Romario and Zico have not managed to achieve. Not even golden boy Neymar did it. Jesus' brace, which also included an outrageous Rabona, didn't really go unnoticed.
"I get very emotional when I hear supporters' chants, but I ask God for forgiveness every night before I go to bed. I don't like to mess with sanctity. I know it's because of my son's last name, but my knees have taken a beating," his mother said last year in an interview to globoesporte.com.
But it's Vera Lucia's devotion to her own personal Jesus that helps to explain how the boy is handling expectations. A maid who raised three boys on her own in the wild city of São Paulo, she's a disciplinarian who was certainly happier with Gabriel's exploding run that led to a penalty and Brazil's opening goal in Quito rather than the exquisite flick or even the forceful volley that sealed his brace.
Mother Vera doesn't approve too much cheekiness and tells off the striker when, in her opinion, he uses too many tricks against his markers. Her interventions have lead Gabriel to nickname her after the managers he works under.
Soon, she will get a Catalan pet name. A little over a month ago, City won the race over several top European clubs, including Guardiola's own alma mater, Barcelona, to secure the 19-year-old's services. Gabriel himself said the presence of the spiritual father of "tika taka" was a determining factor for him to resist more lucrative bids -- according to Brazilian media reports, the player shunned a potential extra €1.5 million in wages from Man United -- in order to move to the Etihad. If you believe those same stories, Guardiola himself was on the phone during the negotiations to lure the Brazilian.
Make no mistake: City still had to pay significant money for a player who is still much more promise than finished article. Regardless of whether Gabriel's move is the third-most expensive in Brazilian football history (according to sports consultancy Pluri) or the fifth (thanks to UOL's calculations taking inflation into account), a €32m fee could easily become a weight around the youngster's neck. Just look at the list and you will find names like Denilson, signed by Betis for a world-record fee in 1998, and a certain Robinho -- ironically, both the former City man and the newest prospects were tied as top scorers in the Brazilian league until Saturday, with 10 goals each.
"I know how amazing this opportunity is and how important it is for my career, but I am keeping my head cool. That's how my family taught me to be. I am not a flashy guy and things will not change now. City are a great club and have a fantastic manager in Guardiola. I can't wait to work with him," Gabriel said in a news conference during the Rio Olympics -- you know, that tournament he helped Brazil win for the first time ever. Despite looking rattled by the criticism aimed at the team after a horrendous run of form and two goalless draws in the first two games, the Selecao rallied to win it all on home soil and Gabriel certainly played his part.
Also: As historical as Thursday's win in Ecuador was for Gabriel and Brazil -- it was their first win there in 33 years -- the Selecao are still in trouble regarding World Cup qualifying. They're currently fifth in the table; if qualification ended today, they'd be forced into a playoff for a spot in Russia.
Failure to beat Colombia on Tuesday could turn up the heat again as quickly as Gabriel evaded the Ecuadorian defence. Nonetheless, Gabriel inspired a huge sigh of relief from both supporters and media. It seemed clear that he felt more comfortable than previous players in a side still built around Neymar and that his speed could provide some much-needed contrast. In recent months, the usual routine has involved the Barcelona man carrying the team on his shoulders, something that could become even more mouth-watering if Phillipe Coutinho settles on the other flank, where he proved a bit more incisive and inspired than Willian last Thursday.
It's also easy to forget that Guardiola sometimes makes mistakes in giving his blessing to players, so it might be a good idea for everyone to give Gabriel some space. As it is now, he's no messiah. But he's no naughty boy either.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.