4 Years Ago, He Was Painting Streets. Now, He’s Brazil’s Center Forward

Gabriel Jesus of Brazil attends the media during a Brazil press conference ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Four years is an eternity in soccer. Just ask Gabriel Jesus.

As Brazil prepared to host the 2014 World Cup, Jesus stood barefoot on a cobbled street of Jardim Peri – a favela in the north of Sao Paulo – his hands covered in yellow paint, as he decorated the sidewalk with the colors of the seleção. At 17, he was just another Brazilian kid with dreams of one day playing in the World Cup.

That day has arrived. When Brazil takes the field on June 17, Jesus will be on the starting 11, a testament to his abilities and perseverance.

The youngest of four children, Jesus lost his father to a heart attack shortly after his birth, forcing his mother to take three jobs to support the family. Like many other children in his neighborhood, he found in soccer his passion and escape. “We played football on the road in front of our houses when we got up in the morning before school, we played at school, we played when we came home from school,” his childhood friend Rodolfo Augosto told the Daily Mail. “He would have played in his sleep if his mom had let him.”

A sharp finisher with great technique and an almost endless intensity that allows him to pressure rival defenses as they take out the ball, Jesus is the kind of multifaceted modern forward who coaches love. He can play in different attacking positions and even on midfield, where he originally started.

Despite being a good student with talent for biology, Jesus’ abilities were even greater on the field. His career started with the amateur team Associação Atlética Anhanguera. His coaches remember that he’d show up on time for training despite having to walk for an hour and a half in flip flops because he didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket.

In 2013, he signed a youth contract with professional club Palmeiras, but he didn’t debut on the first team until 2015. But once he made it to the big leagues, he became a club legend in record time. When he joined the team, Palmeiras was close to relegation, but on his first full season in 2016, he scored 12 goals in 27 appearances to help his team win the Brasilerão for the first time since 1994. He also received the player of the season award, won an Olympic medal, and debuted with the senior team scoring two goals in a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador in Quito.

By that moment he was already on the radar of the big European clubs. Barcelona was keen on hiring him, but a call from Manchester City’s coach Pep Guardiola convinced him to go to England. In just half a season, he dazzled Citizens by scoring seven goals in 10 appearances. Despite missing several games because of an injury, this season he scored 13 goals in 29 appearances.

Fame and fortune hasn’t changed Jesus. He still calls his mom before every game and visits Jardim Peri every time he’s in Brazil. To remind himself of his humble origins, he has a tattoo on his right forearm depicting a ball with a ball under his arm looking at a favela. He has said in many occasions that, “I left Peri, but Peri has never left me.”

As he prepares to realize his dream of representing Brazil in the World Cup, Gabriel Jesus has become an inspiration for millions of Brazilian children who might be painting the streets of their neighborhoods right now.

“Gabriel never forgot us,” 11-year-old Felipe Araujo told the Associated Press. “He makes us proud. He deserves what’s happening to him.”