Sunday night proved to be a pretty memorable one for Gabriel Jesus in more ways then one.
In his side’s 3-1 win over Peru in the Copa America final at the Macarana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the Manchester City forward racked up an impressive hat-trick: an assist, a goal, and a red card.
It was the most involved he has been in a match for his country since his debut against Ecuador in September 2016 in which he netted twice and bagged an assist in a 3-0 win.
When Jesus first appeared on to the scene at Palmeiras in 2015, he was heralded as the future of the Brazilian national team.
Electric pace, deceptively strong and with a clinical eye for goal, he netted 13 times in his first full season as the Sao Paulo club won the league for the first time in 22 years. Aged just 19, comparisons with his country’s great goalscorers were inevitable.
Fast forward to the 2018 World Cup though and when Jesus failed to find the net in five matches, the wave of optimism receded; replaced instead with what bordered on resentment.
The next great star had been merely a chimera, a disappointing let-down.
After Russia, the fans turned, media criticised, and he was dropped by coach Tite. Jesus admitted he was scarred by his struggles on the world’s grandest stage, yet he bounced back.
Last season, 21 goals in 21 starts for Manchester City was enough to reclaim his place in the national team. When he went a further four games without finding the net this past month, however, concerns grew again that the patriotic pressure was too much.
In the quarter-final against Paraguay, a close-range volley that would have given Brazil a late lead, was fired wide.
Starved of love on home soil, Jesus simply tried harder. His best performance to date came at the perfect moment, against rivals Argentina in their semi-final.
After opening the scoring, he displayed strength and determination to run 40-metres with the ball at his feet before laying off Roberto Firmino to end the contest.
Inside the Maracana ahead of Sunday’s final, in a remarkable about-face, his name was greeted with the biggest cheer of the evening.
While his teammates started sloppily, he immediately showed intent, running repeatedly at left-back Miguel Trauco and showing good hold-up play.
Midway through the first half, he produced quick feet to turn his marker before picking out Everton perfectly to open the scoring at the back post.
Then, on the stroke of half-time, after the spirited Peru had equalised from the spot, he put Brazil ahead once again with a consummate finish that had all the bearings of a player brimming with newfound confidence.
It was the kind of first-half performance that would force the naysayers to eat their words, but the 22-year-old maintained he was only playing for his country rather than against his critics.
“I don’t want to make anybody shut their mouth; I’m not interested in any of that,” Jesus, who was shown a second yellow with 20 minutes to go and furiously punched the VAR booth on his way down the tunnel, said.
“I am very conscious of my true level and criticism will always come - it can’t be compliments all the time. I need to mature in some ways, but I try to give my all on the pitch and I am just delighted to win.”
While Jesus won gold at the Maracana with the Brazil U23s during the 2016 Olympic Games, Sunday marked the country’s first full international at the famous stadium since beating Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup six years ago.
It was also their first Copa America title since beating Argentina 3-0 in the 2007 final.
“This is a sacred place in football,” Jesus added. ”To be champion here for a second time is very satisfying. I am very happy to win a trophy with my country, wearing the Brazil shirt, inside the Maracana, scoring a goal and helping the team. It is a day that I will remember for a long time.”
Meanwhile Brazil coach Tite disputed his striker’s sending off and questioned the referee’s ability to handle the pressure of a continental final.
Nevertheless, the coach has now won 33 of his 42 matches in charge of the five-time World Cup winners, conceding just 11 goals in the process. Soon the focus will turn to the 2022 World Cup, but for now the former manager of UAE sides Al Wahda and Al Ain, is revelling in the moment.
“I became coach of the national team now - here in this temple of football: the Maracana,” said Tite, his eyes watering as he discussed his emotional three-year journey since taking the reins.
“I don’t know how you can describe the happiness I am feeling. It’s impossible.”