Even the great Ronaldo sees early signs the Palmeiras youngster could follow in his footsteps, and he has the perfect chance to wow his suitors alongside Neymar at the Olympics
The best Brazilian youngsters tend to be familiar faces in world football long before they leave their teenage years. At 18, Neymar was already a star with Santos and on the way to Copa Libertadores glory, while the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho enjoyed similarly prodigious starts in their homeland before moving to Europe.
Palmeiras’ Gabriel Jesus is the next wonderkid making big waves in Brazil. So much so that the 19-year-old striker has already been linked to a move to Barcelona, home at one time or another for all three of the idols mentioned above.
But who is this teenage superstar, and why are the Catalans keen to make him their next world-beater up front?
The Sao Paulo native grew up in the modest Jardim Peri suburb, on the northern side of the metropolis, and quickly made a name for himself in Paulista youth football. His big break came in 2012, playing for the amateur Anhanguera team, when he smashed 29 goals to earn himself both the Copa Sao Paulo Under-15 top scorer award and a move to the Verdao.
In his first season with the Brazilian heavyweights Gabriel Fernando, as he was known back then, helped himself to 16 goals playing a year up in the U-17 division. Even better was to come the following year, with an incredible 38 goals in 22 outings to set the all-time record for the tournament. Palmeiras missed out on the trophy in the final against Santos, but their prodigy was rewarded with a five-year contract at the end of 2014 that keeps him tied to the club until 2019.
Currently in his first full season with the senior team, Gabriel has shown no signs of slowing down. He currently leads the Serie A scoring charts with 10 goals as Palmeiras sit at the top of the league, and added another four in the Copa Libertadores to provide the high point of an otherwise poor campaign.
Along with Atletico Nacional and Colombia prospect Marlos Moreno and Rosario Central’s PSG-bound sensation Giovani Lo Celso, he is one of the highest-rated under-21s on the South American continent, and unlike other ‘next best things’ has managed effortlessly to transfer his ability at youth level to the highest stage.
Even so, comparisons with the great Ronaldo may be overblown. But if the legend himself makes them, who can argue? “I see the similarities. He is very young and already has such success and responsibilities,” O Fenomeno told TV Globo alongside the beaming youngster.
Gabriel’s direct dribbling and frightening acceleration off the mark certainly bring to mind the young Ronaldo, albeit lacking the physical presence the World Cup winner had. But the teenager complements his technical and scoring ability with another weapon: a terrific eye for the pass that makes him as dangerous 25 yards from goal as it does in the box.
There are also few doubts about his resilience. So far in Serie A the youngster has been fouled an average of 3.5 times a game, the only way his markers can stop him in his path. But Gabriel, equally adept at playing in the middle of attack or on the left of an offensive trident, has shrugged off the hits to establish himself among the elite of Brazil’s striking talent.
If the Palmeiras man is to earn a dream move to Catalunya, he has the perfect dress rehearsal next month. In August he will partner none other than Neymar up front as Brazil go for their first Olympic gold. That partnership will almost definitely be watched closely by Barca representatives, keen to gauge whether their target can excel not just on the world stage, but alongside a player whose latest contract marks him out as a future leader of the club in the years to come.
Barcelona would most likely have to put up an offer some way north of €15 million to get their man, whom Palmeiras are showing little inclination to give away without a fight.
“He is not going to play in Barcelona today. Who would he play instead of there? Here, he will grow more,” Verdao coach Cuca told reporters after Blaugrana scouts watched him put America to the sword with a double last month. Gabi too had similar sentiments after putting Sport to the sword on Monday with another goal in a 3-1 away win.
“I have made a decision over Europe, I want to stay. Palmeiras are fighting for the title and I am very happy here,” the youngster told reporters after the game. His desire may well be to see out the rest of the campaign until December, but with Barcelona reportedly joined by Inter and Real Madrid in the hunt that may be easier said than done.
Luckily, he has someone of Ronaldo’s calibre to act as a footballing godfather and remind him of what really matters.
“Play, be happy, have fun with the ball. Later coaches are going to ask you to do a load of things, but when you have the ball have fun, do some tricks, but always be looking for goals, that’s what the fans want,” the veteran told Gabriel.
His carefree manner of playing has indeed been a joy to watch for Palmeiras supporters over the last two years, and after the Olympic Games the name Gabriel Jesus might just be travelling across the Atlantic too.
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