One of the defining moments of the summer’s Copa America was the sight of Gabriel Jesus sat on the tunnel steps of the Maracana Stadium in tears during the final.
Having assisted the opening goal for team-mate Everton, he struck Brazil’s second in the encounter with Peru before being sent off 20 minutes before time.
Distraught and furious, Jesus kicked a water bottle, punched the bench and then pushed over the VAR booth on his way down the tunnel where he laid bare his emotions.
The sadness was eventually replaced by smiles after the Selecao secured a 3-1 victory on home soil for their first Copa crown since 2007.
What the tournament also witnessed was the rebirth of Jesus, restoring faith in the frontman’s ability and putting him back on the road to even greater heights.
Since his first call-up three years ago, he has been feted by Brazilian legends such as Ronaldinho, who claimed he could go on to become the world’s best.
But after failing to score in five games at the 2018 World Cup finals, the Manchester City forward was dropped and had to fight hard to get back into coach Tite’s plans.
And, with Brazil missing the talismanic Neymar through injury at the Copa, Jesus revelled in the spotlight, shining most in the 2-0 semi-final win over Argentina.
Handed a two-month international ban for his behaviour after his final dismissal, the 22-year-old admitted at the time how the experience showed he needed to ‘grow up a lot’.
“I learnt a lot in that tournament,” Jesus told Sport360 exclusively. “It was good for me, but I still think about the final and what happened.
“I got the two yellow cards and then the red card, but I still think ‘why me?’. I did not think it was even a yellow for a foul.
“But it happened and I have to learn from this. I was very happy for Brazil that we won a big title. It was very important for me too.
“It showed that I can play very well in a tournament like this, be an important player in games like the quarter final, semi final and final. I scored goals in them and that was very important for me and for Brazil.
“Always when I go on the pitch, it doesn’t matter if it’s with City or Brazil, I want to score, I have to score. I’m a striker you know. My confidence was high because of this and it was a very good Copa America.”
The next target for Jesus and Brazil is next summer’s Copa, held in Argentina and Colombia, and then the World Cup.
The five-time winners exited disappointingly in Russia at the quarter-final stage with defeat to Belgium – and it will be 20 years since their last triumph in 2002 if they compete in Qatar for the Middle East’s first-ever staging of football’s showpiece.
“Of course we want to be the number one again,” added Jesus, who also won Olympics gold when his country hosted the 2016 edition.
“We are Brazil. We are the most successful winners in World Cup history and we have to try to win every title.
“All the players who play for Brazil they want to win the titles. But it’s difficult you know, the reality is different.
“It was frustrating not to win the World Cup last time. We left Brazil for Russia very confident because we had a lot of good players, big players and a good management team. We were playing very good at that time going into the finals.
“We didn’t win and sometimes that can happen. But we wanted to improve more after that, to get back, to play better, to go to the next World Cup and try winning it again.
“That’s the target and the Copa America showed we are going well.”
While South American qualifiers for Qatar start next March, Jesus and Brazil will get a taste of the Gulf this week in two international friendlies.
A Superclasico clash with Argentina – for whom City team-mates Sergio Aguero and Nicolas Otamendi figure – takes place in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh on Friday, before a meeting with South Korea at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
With the UAE capital’s connections to City through owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Jesus – who has won two Premier League titles with Pep Guardiola’s outfit since he joined in 2017 – added: “I think it will be a very good time in the Emirates and look forward to going there.
“It will be special because they have a lot of City fans there, with the club’s owners in Abu Dhabi, so I want to play there for these fans and do well.
“I played in Saudi last year in a friendly and scored against them. It was a good experience too.
“The Argentina game is a derby and it doesn’t matter if one team is ahead of the other one, it’s a big rivalry. You never know what will happen.
“I think it will be a difficult game for both of us. But of course I want to win because it’s a derby, it’s special to win these games against them.”
Neymar will be absent again through injury, but Jesus says the Paris Saint-Germain frontman, who has 61 goals in 101 games for his country, has set the benchmark for him.
“Of course, for me, the dream is to follow what he has achieved,” said Jesus, who has 18 goals in his 37 caps.
“To do that, getting 100 caps, scoring the most goals… But I know I have to work hard in every game, every training session for City, for Brazil. And I know I have to score goals.
“I am also learning at City to do this, working with Sergio. He’s a top, top player, the record scorer for the club and I can only learn from him. He scores almost every game.
“I am only 22 and I know I need to improve more, but that’s what I want to do.
“Without Neymar for Brazil, you have to look at everyone to step up, not just me. And Brazil have a lot of big players, not just Neymar.
“He is No1 for Brazil of course, but we have a lot of big players in the world and we can play well, even if he is not with us.”