Four years ago, when FIFA’s flagship tournament was held in his homeland, Gabriel Jesus was anonymous. A boy much like any other, he was out painting the streets – a Brazilian World Cup tradition – of Sao Paulo’s Jardim Peri, the neighbourhood where he grew up.
As the Selecao look to lift their sixth world title in Russia this summer, however, he will be front and centre.
Quite literally, when he is on the pitch. As Tite’s undisputed first-choice No9, he will lead the line for the Selecao with his boundless, child-like energy and seamless ability to pop up in the right place at the right time.
He will be in focus off the field, too. Neymar aside, he is the most sought-after and reported-on Brazilian. If not already a world football icon, then Jesus is a superstar in waiting.
His apparent joie de vivre, cherubic looks and humble origins endear him to young and old, rich and poor.
The ‘Hi, Mum’ telephone goal celebration, his fairly unremarkable haircuts and the fact that when he doesn’t receive the ball he gets back in position and makes another run, rather than throwing his arms up in disgust, all seem to add to the boy-next-door appeal.
Even his name, in a deeply religious country like Brazil, enhances his charm. He is an anti-Neymar in the Neymar age, and people love him for it.
Recently, a huge, colourful mural of his smiling face was unveiled in Jardim Peri. In four years he has gone from painting the neighbourhood to having his image painted on it.
Even though this season has been hampered by injuries, it still feels as if he has made progress. When fit, he is perhaps even ahead of Sergio Aguero in the pecking order at City. His rise to such an elevated status has been nothing short of meteoric.
His ascent has an air of inevitability about it now. With all the talent at his disposal it seems as if he was destined to hit these great heights from the very start.
When City secured his signature in August 2016, however, he was still an unknown quantity outside of his homeland and there were still doubts surrounding him in Brazil.
After being moved from the left wing to centre-forward for his club side Palmeiras, he had started the season on fire, scoring goals and menacing defences in a way that brought the attention of the world’s top clubs and propelled Palmeiras to the top of the league.
That form earned him a call-up to the Brazil squad for their home Olympics and a place as the team’s No9. But in the first two games, both 0-0 draws against South Africa and Iraq, he put in two abysmal performances.
Against a weak South Africa side, he barely touched the ball and only had one shot on goal. In the game with Iraq, he was withdrawn after just 55 minutes.
Coach Rogerio Micale decided that a change needed to be made. Gremio’s mercurial forward Luan was brought in to play through the middle with Neymar. Gabriel Jesus was shifted back out to the left.
Cutting in onto his stronger right foot, he managed to score against Denmark in the last group game and bag a brace in the semi-final thrashing of Honduras. The question had been raised, though, about what his best position would be going forward.
Would he be able to cut it as a central striker in the notoriously physical English top flight? Might City need to loan him out to gain experience elsewhere before he was ready to fight for a place in the team?
Back at his club, and back playing as a centre-forward, he didn’t manage a goal in his next three games.
When the Brazil squad was announced for that September’s World Cup qualifiers and Jesus was included, nobody expected him to start up front by himself given the Olympic experience and his lack of goal-scoring form.
The game against Ecaudor, away at the altitude of Quito, was also Tite’s first as manager of Brazil. It was a huge risk, therefore, when the new head coach handed Jesus the No9 shirt and put Neymar out on the wing.
The gamble paid off handsomely. After a tight first 45, the then-19-year-old burst into life in the second half. With twenty minutes to go he robbed the ball from a dallying Ecuadorian defender before being brought down by the goalkeeper to win a penalty that was converted by Neymar.
Then, in the 87th and 92nd minutes, he put the game to bed with two magnificent goals. The first was a deft flick at the near post to guide home a Marcelo cross. The second was a beautiful curling effort from the edge of the box. They were two utterly different but equally impressive strikes that left no doubt about the scope of his ability.
Five days later, the Selecao confronted Colombia in Manaus and though he didn’t repeat his goal-scoring heroics, Jesus put in another assured performance and played a vital role in setting up Brazil’s winning goal. Thanks in large part to their new star, Tite’s team had gone from outside the qualifying places to second in the table.
After returning to Palmeiras the following week, the young striker went into another crucial fixture against Flamengo, Palmeiras’ closest rivals for the Brazilian domestic title.
Going into the last ten minutes, his team were 1-0 down and the momentum in the battle for the league looked to be swinging towards the opposition.
Jesus, however, had other ideas. A long throw was flicked on by Yerry Mina, now of Barcelona, and fell to the Palmeiras No33 on the edge of the area. He controlled the ball neatly, touched it gently to the right and rifled a fierce shot into the bottom corner, single-handedly wresting back control of the title race for the men in green.
It was this two-week period that cemented his place in the Selecao and affirmed his status as one of the world’s foremost young talents. Anyone who had questioned Jesus’ best position or his ability to handle the pressure in big games beforehand had been emphatically answered.
And, perhaps most importantly, Pep Guardiola, watching on intently from his Manchester home, had been convinced that the ebullient Brazilian was already equipped to be the dynamic, mobile, central attacking presence that City needed.
Next month in Russia, Jesus – now older, stronger and a little wiser – will have the chance to make his mark on the biggest stage of them all and, if he can do it, he will shake off the shackles of the ‘promising youngster’ tag and confirm himself as one of the world’s top centre-forwards.
Not bad for a boy who just four years ago was painting the streets of Jardim Peri with heart full of hope and head full of dreams.