The psychological scarring Brazil suffered through being slaughtered 7-1 by Germany at the semi-final stage of their home World Cup four years ago provides the most serious question mark over their favourite status in these nascent Russian finals.
Meanwhile, the only significant indelible mark that coveted striker Gabriel Jesus carries is a tattoo of a boy looking over Sao Paolo’s Jardin Permi favela where the 21-year-old was roaming barefooted as late as his mid-teens. The Manchester City performer has only known, and been integral to, Brazil being an unstoppable football force in being guided by transformative coach Tite across two years in the senior international set-up. Whatever befell their five-times World Cup winners in 2014, the emergence of Jesus as the totemistic player of Tite’s tenure engenders a powerful belief in their homeland that previous fatal weaknesses have been addressed.
Jesus is set to feature as a member of a fearsome attacking quartet, which has the youngster at its apex with Neymar, Willian and Philippe Coutinho behind him in a 4-2-3-1 for Brazil’s Group E opener against Switzerland in Rostov-on-Don.
The player, snapped up by City from Palmeiras for an initial £27 million fee in January 2017, does not in any way appear weighed down by the expectations placed on his shoulders. He has been presented as the attacker who has succeeded in bringing balance to Brazil courtesy of possessing the adaptability and menace to lighten the unfair load previously placed on the globe’s most expensive footballer, Neymar, who will today make his first competitive outing since fracturing his foot playing for PSG four months ago.
Jesus’ exploits for both club and country serve as endorsements for such claims, and have led to him being tipped in many quarters as a potential Golden Boot winner at these finals. He was Brazil’s top scorer in qualifying with seven strikes, and now boasts ten goals in 21 international outings. His burgeoning confidence can be evidenced in his contribution to Pep Guardiola’s men last month becoming the first 100 point-earning English top-flight champions. Indeed, it was his 94th-minute strike to earn a 1-0 victory on the final day at Southampton that allowed City to bring up this landmark.
A giant wall mural of his features now adorns the Jardin Peri neighbourhood where Jesus grew up, and still regularly returns. It is indeed exactly the sort of image that not so long ago he might have helped paint. Yet, this week he admirably avoided the pat response when asked to reflect on his rise from what outsiders would see as desperate circumstances to a life of luxury – the player’s contract with City believed to be worth £4m a year.
“I don’t think of that [time] as suffering, but being Brazilian – being able to change,” he said. “For anyone, striving for your goal is not suffering. It’s a demonstration of courage. That’s where our pride comes from.”
Weeks into his time with City, Jesus was expressing pride over how quickly he had succeeded in settling into life in English football less than two years on from making his senior debut in the Brazilian game. The player then broke a metatarsal in his right foot just as it seemed he might put genuine pressure on Sergio Aguero for the central striking role at the Etihad.
A ligament injury that kept him out for the first two months of this season again seemed to dent temporarily his goalscoring powers but 17 goals from 29 starts and 14 substitute appearances have ensured Jesus is Tite’s anointed one for the No.9 role that could have been handed to Liverpool’s Firmino. The City man maintained this week that this would not drive a wedge between the pair.
“I want to make it very clear – if Brazil wins, we all win,” Jesus said. “We do have two centre-forwards, but we have two in all positions. A good healthy fight helps those who are playing to develop. If Firmino comes in, that will help me. He had a great season – but I did as well.”
Jesus, a deeply religious individual who wears 33 because that is the age Christ is believed to have been when crucified, knows precisely the immortality on offer for Brazil’s national team these next four weeks. A sixth World Cup would not only put them two ahead of Germany in the rankings for such tournament wins, it would also provide them with a first triumph in Europe since they were victors in Sweden in 1962 and end a 16-year drought.
“I want to write my name in Brazil’s history,” the striker said. “We have to take notice of those who have gone before. I don’t want to erase their names. I want to create my own. But our focus is the collective. If we work well together, then the individual will profit.”