INTERVIEW: Man City's Jesus on Manchester derby & Neymar comparison

Alam Khan 9/12/2017
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The two tattoos, one on the left calf of Neymar Jr. and the other on the right forearm of Gabriel Jesus, are striking, similar and significant.

They depict a young Brazilian with a football under his arm, looking up at a Sao Paulo favela and dreaming big.

Both Neymar and Jesus were those boys – and subsequently blessed with the ability and desire to make success a reality.

At 25, Neymar has now established himself among football’s biggest and best, to the extent Paris Saint-Germain paid a world record £200 million to lure him away from Barcelona last summer and he came third in the 2017 Ballon D’Or.

Jesus, five years younger, may only be just embarking on his quest to win major trophies with Manchester City, but has been widely tipped to emulate the feats of his compatriot and close friend in rising from the slums to superstardom.

It is something he wants too, but, despite being linked by ink, the frontman is eager to create his own fairytale.

“Each individual is different from one another,” Jesus tells Sport360. “He’s building his story, I’m building mine.

“Neymar deserves all the credit for everything he has accomplished and I’m always cheering for him.

“We’re close. When we’re playing together we’re always helping one another, and helping the national team, and maybe playing in the same club in the future.

“But I’m going to try to build my own story. We each have our own path, but I hope to conquer the things he’s been conquering.”

Driven by their childhood desire and bonded by brilliance, the pair’s relationship has blossomed on and off the field as they have lifted Brazil back to the top of international football.

Jesus, who has eight goals in 13 games since being handed the coveted No9 shirt for the Selecao in 2016, enjoys every opportunity to team up with Neymar.

“Not only myself, I think even the most experienced players learn from Neymar,” he adds.

“He’s a very positive guy. He’s a [grown] man, but at the same time I consider him a kid because he’s always smiling and joking around with everyone.

“I hope he keeps this attitude because it helps everyone and I keep learning from him more and more.”

Having been relatively unknown beyond his homeland where he inspired Palmeiras to a long-awaited Brazilian league title with 12 goals, his £27 million signing by City was deemed a gamble by some.

But that transfer fee now seems somewhat of a bargain after a stunning impact since his January arrival at the Etihad, scoring 15 times and assisting six goals in 24 Premier League appearances disrupted by a foot injury.

With a skill set and swagger that belied his teenage years, Jesus has become the rough diamond that has sparkled so brightly his value has soared substantially and brought plaudits from Brazil icons like Pele and Ronaldo, to whom he has been compared.

Neymar has revealed former Barca team-mate Lionel Messi is the most skillful player he has starred alongside, but added: “After that it’s Gabriel Jesus – he’s incredibly skillful.”

While he has had to fight for first-team starts with club record scorer Sergio Aguero in this campaign, Jesus, now 20, has still notched 10 times.

Neymar (R) with Gabriel Jesus

Neymar (R) with Gabriel Jesus

“Yes, this start of the season has been great for me, a dream,” says the frontman, whose amazing run of not losing a competitive match for either Brazil or City ended at 403 days with the 2-1 midweek Champions League defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk.

“I’ve been working really hard. When the coach and the team need me, I’m always available for them and hope to continue like this.”

With Aguero struggling in tough recent league games against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, City boss Pep Guardiola could turn to Jesus to help unlock Manchester United’s defence in Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash at Old Trafford.

The 175th derby has already been dubbed a title decider as City could extend their lead to 11 points should they claim a 14th successive league win by overcoming their second-placed neighbours, who are unbeaten themselves in a record-equalling 40 home matches.

And Jesus is aware of the Manchester rivalry, evoking memories of a showdown between Brazil and arch-foes Argentina.

“A little bit, yes,” he adds. “I think Brazil-Argentina is a bigger rivalry because we’re talking about two national teams, two countries. But it’s not that distant, it’s similar, it’s a Clasico.

“It’s going to be a good match, a big match, between big players from big clubs.

“We’ll try to win because it’s very important. It’s also a head-to-head match with our positions in the table.
“So there’s the size of the match, but we have to be clear that we’re going there to try to win.

“I don’t believe United will play defensively because just like us, they need the result. If they play like they did against Arsenal [when they attacked], that will make it an open game and that will suit us.”

Free and fearless is how Jesus plays too and it is remarkable how quickly he has come to the footballing fore, having lived in that Jardim Peri favela until he was 16 and only making his professional debut two years ago.

The humble hero has also charted big moments in his life through tattoos.

Some are personal, such as ones honouring his mother, Vera Lucia, who has been the biggest influence on his life and career having raised him in a single-parent family.

Then there are the sporting achievements, with Rio 2016 and the Olympic rings symbolising an unforgettable appearance at the Games, where Jesus helped his nation strike gold on home soil with a penalty shoot-out win over Germany – two years after a 7-1 World Cup humbling by the same opponents.

And he’s ready to add to the artwork should more triumphs follow this season.

With City impressive in the league so far, already in the League Cup quarter finals and the last 16 of the Champions League, Brazil are also eyeing a sixth World Cup success at next year’s finals in Russia.

“Yes, I would add more,” he says with a laugh. “A Premier League tattoo, I would have to think about it.

“But if we win the World Cup I would definitely do a tattoo. And if I ever win the Champions League I would also do one.”

With City and Brazil looking good at the moment, there is every chance Jesus could be covering himself in more glory.

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15 Minutes With: Anna Lyapunova ready to take to the stage at Dubai Pole Cup and World Calisthenics Games

Hiba Khan 8/11/2017
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Lyapunova will be performing in Dubai next month.

Anna Lyapunova is what you would describe as ‘scarily flexible’, but she has the grace and agility of a gazelle when performing one of her pole or hoop routines at Pole Fit Dubai.

The 31-year-old bagged the 2016 Pole Art Championship title in Cyprus and is now set to take the stage of the first Dubai Pole Cup and World Calisthenics Games to be held on December 8 and 9 at the World Trade Centre.

She sat down with Sport360° to talk about her journey so far and how she stays fit.

Tell us a bit about yourself ?

My name is Anna Lyapunova. I live in Dubai and I am an aerial arts instructor and a performer.

How did you get involved with aerial arts?

Ever since I was a little girl, I was involved in rhythmic gymnastics and then pursued it professionally for 10 years. I was awarded the title of “Master of Sports” in the Republic of Kazakhstan. However, afterwards I got involved in contemporary dancing and eventually found myself gravitating towards aerial arts, as it is a combination of the two things that I excel at, which is gymnastics and dancing.

One of my most recent and proudest achievements was winning the first prize at the 2016 International Pole Art Championship in Cyprus, in the category of semi-professionals.

What challenges did you face when transitioning from rhythmic gymnastics to the aerial arts?

Thankfully I can say haven’t faced too many challenges in my pursuit of gymnastics and aerial arts. I just have a very deep appreciation for my body and I know what it is capable of.

Since both of these disciplines have pretty much the same principles, it wasn’t hard for me at all. However, the only minor concern I had was that in professional gymnastics you are always taught to not show any strain or emotions on your face.

But dancing is a whole new ball game. You have to emote, not just with your body, but your face as well. So, I can say that I struggled a bit with showing my emotions in dancing and expressing myself through dancing.

Afterwards, I decided to give pole dancing and hoops a shot, and I just immediately fell in love with it.

People still seem to have a very negative perception of the aerial arts, what is your take on that?

I respect people’s opinions and I understand not everyone can have the same view on a subject. It is something they are entitled to, but I do believe that it is wrong to just write it off as something bad without at least giving it a shot themselves.

Aerial arts are definitely worth trying before one can jump to any conclusion about it. I am sure, most of the people would appreciate it as a great sport and may find it absolutely beautiful as well.

What do you think of the Dubai Pole Cup and how are you training for it?

It is the first competition for pole in Dubai and it is a very positive step forward, especially in this region. It shows that aerial arts are being accepted as a legitimate sport. I am training very hard for it and let’s see what happens.

I am obviously very excited to be part of this event and I am happy that people will be able to see my performance live, instead of just watching on the internet.

Your level of flexibility can be quite daunting for many, how do you maintain your immense physique?

Everyone can be flexible and it is only a matter of working out and stretching regularly. Sometimes people don’t realise how strong their bodies are and end up not working to their body’s full potential.

I stay in shape with daily workouts. I don’t stick to any diets, but I just try eat clean and healthy. Pole dancing also really changed my life and helped me find a great way to stay active. It has also helped me realise my talents as an artist, choreographer and as a coach.

What is your advice to women pursuing aerial arts?

Do not be afraid and be patient. Love yourself and believe in yourself. You cannot imagine what our bodies are capable of, and one can truly reach their fullest potential if they only try.

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Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps aims to be an agent of change in second act

Jay Asser 14/09/2017
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Michael Phelps with the kids at the Under Armour store opening in Dubai Mall.

The Michael Phelps most of the world knows is the one we’ve literally only seen on the surface. The American swimming legend, widely considered the greatest Olympian of all-time, has come to be defined by the briefest of moments – sometimes nothing more than seconds – spent in the confines of chlorinated water.

During his masterful career, we got glimpses of Phelps’ life outside of the pool – and at times they were glimpses he wishes were left private.

But now that he’s retired for good, Phelps the amphibious medal and world record hoarder is giving way to Phelps the human.

“There are a lot of things I can do now outside of the pool that could potentially be bigger than me winning X amount of medals,” says a relaxed Phelps in Dubai ahead of an Under Armour store opening in Dubai Mall.

“Medals are obviously great and I’ll always love to see them or hold them or talk about them, but I don’t want my career to just be gold medals or world records. I’d like my career and legacy to be bigger than that.

“My competitive side is finished inside the pool, but the goals that I have now are probably bigger than what I had in the pool.”

Bigger than 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which came on the podium’s highest level? That’s setting the bar high, even for someone who has constantly defied the odds.

But now at 32, Phelps has infinitely more life to live than what he’s already spent in the pool. Such is the nature of athletes that their run in sport, and especially their dominance, can only last so long.

There is an afterlife where time, once as precious as the gasps of oxygen Phelps utilised while torpedoing through the water, is suddenly in abundance and the challenge transitions from how to maximise it, to how to fill it.

“Now I get to do things and talk about things that I’ve never really talked about before,” Phelps says.

It may be difficult to fathom, but at one point in Phelps’ life – while in the midst of a transcendent career – he was struggling with mental health illness and substance abuse.

On the heels of floundering (for him) at the 2012 Olympics – “London was almost forced on me” – Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Ten years earlier, at the age of 19, came his first DUI, and in 2009, Phelps was photographed inhaling marijuana.

Following his second arrest, Phelps ultimately checked in to a rehabilitation facility to seek treatment in an in-patient programme.

After dealing with his inner demons behind closed doors for so long, Phelps has recently let the public in to understand what plagued him. He has also joined the board of directors of Medibio, an Australian medical technology company that has developed a test to help diagnose mental health disorders, depression and stress.

Phelps’ message is this: if even he, someone who arguably belongs on the Mount Rushmore of athletes, can grapple with mental illness, then there’s no shame in anyone else battling inner conflict.

“I can honestly say I’ve gone through depression probably a half-dozen times. I have anxiety, I have ADHD, there are things that make me human,” Phelps says. “I’ll get up and talk about it because it’s part of my life and I have nothing to hide.

“Throughout most of my career, I don’t want to say I had a mask on, but some of the times I wasn’t really showing who I was. I think over the last three years I’ve showed this is who I am and this is what you get.

“When it comes to mental health, hopefully we can teach people that it’s okay to not be okay. Look, I wanted to kill myself and I was able to come back two years later (at the 2016 Rio Olympics) and be the happiest guy in the world because I had the right tools around me and I was willing to change. I was willing to get better.”

While the personal fight against mental illness may be ongoing, Phelps has admittedly embraced a paternal role now that he’s more capable than ever of positively influencing those around him.

The reason for that is, well, he’s actually a father now. Phelps’ wife Nicole gave birth to son Boomer 16 months ago and the couple now have a second child on the way.

Daddy and boomer pool time!! 🏊 🏊

A post shared by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

Outside of being a father to his son – who he holds dear after his own father “was never around when I was a kid” – Phelps has become a sort of dad to the rest of the swimming world.

The transition to that role came at the Rio Olympics, where he was on a United States team full of up-and-coming swimmers who grew up with posters of Phelps on their walls.

“Throughout my Olympic career, I was very quiet and kept to myself because I was going out to compete a mission. So I was always in my own lane,” Phelps says. “(At the Rio Olympics), I felt more like a dad and it’s probably because I am a dad.

“You have a bunch of younger guys on the team. I kind of saw a goal of mine that I had, to change the sport and grow the sport, happening in front of me.

“I think it was the best and most enjoyable part of my career. I think people watching hopefully saw it in my face because I definitely think it was the happiest I’ve ever been. There was no better way to go out.”

By retiring, Phelps leaves behind a lasting legacy but also a sport that, much like athletics with Usain Bolt’s exit, is searching for the next great thing to fill the massive void left behind by its brightest star.

And naturally, those omnipresent records will be the benchmark, though Phelps hopes they’ll be broken sooner or later.

“A lot of people thought what I did was impossible. So if there’s a kid out there who’s truly willing to dream and dream as big as he can that will shock himself, anything is possible,” Phelps says. “If somebody does, great.”

Every athlete is different, but the greats often have competitive fires that can’t be extinguished. Phelps came out of retirement once. Why not again?

Nothing’s impossible, as Phelps himself says, but it’s evident in seeing and hearing him that his focus is now squarely on the next chapter.

“If you’re going to ask if I’m coming back, just forget it,” he says. “I did what I wanted to do and filled that ‘what if?’ For me, I’m very happy to be able to finish on my terms.”

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