Teresópolis, Brazil | AFP | At just 22 years of age, a back-to-back Premier League title winner with Manchester City and having scored 17 goals in 34 matches for five-time world champions Brazil, it might seem absurd to say it, but Gabriel Jesus was under pressure coming into the Copa America.
The former Palmeiras forward — who won the Brazilian title there too before moving to City — seems to have the world at his feet and enviable statistics for a player of his age.
Yet when he arrived at the Copa America on home soil, Jesus was the subject of severe criticism.
The reason being: his lack of goals for Brazil.
That’s a strange accusation to put at a guy scoring an average of one in every two matches and who, with six international goals in 2019, is having his most prolific calendar year in the Selecao’s yellow shirt.
But the problem was that until he netted in the 2-0 Copa semi-final victory over arch rivals Argentina, Jesus’s last nine goals had come in friendlies.
Crucially, he didn’t score at the World Cup last year and also missed an injury-time penalty in the 5-0 win over Peru earlier in the Copa.
Scoring against Argentina lifted a huge weight off his shoulders.
“I’m delighted about the goal because it’s something I’d been searching for since the first match at the Copa,” said Jesus.
“In life, sometimes things don’t go as you’d like. You have to be persistent, things aren’t easy.”
His last goal in a competitive match dated back to October 2017 and a World Cup qualifier against Chile.
– ‘Stay on your feet’ –
Not only did he take his chance against Argentina, popping up in the right place at the right time to tap home a cross from Roberto Firmino after great work from captain Dani Alves, but he also laid the second on a plate for his strike partner.
Jesus won a 50-50 challenge with Argentina midfielder German Pezzella, shrugged off a full-blooded attempted foul from his City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi as he entered the area, cut inside a sliding Juan Foyth and slipped the ball to Firmino to score.
Crucially, though, he stayed on his feet as Otamendi, beaten for pace, tried to grapple with Jesus.
“I never thought about falling,” he said. “When I go down it’s because I’m really knocked off balance.
“Sometimes when you fall for nothing, you lose a goalscoring chance and there’s no penalty, nothing. You need to keep your focus and stay on your feet.”
That will have been music to the ears of many football fans fed up with seeing the absent Neymar rolling around theatrically on the turf after the faintest of touches.
The Jesus-Firmino combination may never have come about had things gone entirely to plan for Brazil at the start of the Copa.
Jesus was Brazil’s center-forward in Russia last year but he was left on the bench in favor of Firmino by coach Tite at the start of the Copa.
However, after the drab 0-0 draw with Venezuela, Jesus was given his chance on the right of the three-pronged attack — the position where he began his career at Palmeiras.
“We’ve shown that we know each other well and we play well together no matter the position,” said Firmino of his strike partnership with Jesus.
– ‘Same scenario’ –
The only previous honor Jesus has won with the national team, or the under-23s at least, was the Olympic Games gold medal in 2016.
That too was gleaned at the Maracana where Sunday’s final will take place.
And Jesus sees similarities between Brazil’s journey there and here during the Copa.
Brazil drew their opening two matches at the Olympics, against South Africa and Iraq, before hitting their stride
“It was a different situation but it was practically the same,” said Jesus.
“Things didn’t start well because we were jeered during our first Olympics matches. It’s almost the same scenario.”
Brazil were jeered during their first two Copa matches and at half-time of their quarter-final victory over Paraguay.
Should Jesus score and help Brazil win on Sunday, though, he’ll hear nothing but cheers fill the Maracana to its rafters.
“Hopefully I’ll be a champion again,” he said.