Older, wiser Jo enjoying renaissance as Corinthians' leading striker
For the longest time, it looked like it would be one of those days.
Corinthians threw everything they had at Botafogo, but it just bounced off: goalkeeper Roberto Júnior "The Little Cat" Fernández lived up to his name and then some. Rodriginho and Marquinhos Gabriel were denied; a penalty was clawed around the post.
There is something about Corinthians in moments such as these, however, a prize fighter's ability to grind out a victory on points even when not at their best. That was a hallmark of their best years under Tite, and Fábio Carille, his former assistant, appears to have inherited some of the fairy dust.
Increasingly, there is something about Jo in moments such as these, too.
In times past, the striker might have gone into his shell after seeing his tame spot-kick repelled at the start of the second half -- but not this year and not on Sunday. With 12 minutes to go, after another spot of penalty-box pinball, it was Jo who finally broke Fernandez's resistance, clobbering the ball into the net from close range.
It was a cult hero's goal, scrappy and timely; it also sent Corinthians seven points clear at the summit of the Brasileirao, as second-placed Gremio fluffed their lines 24 hours earlier. Yet this was no instant coronation, for Jo has been performing minor miracles in the Timao's white jersey since the start of the year.
His raw numbers are impressive. The 30-year-old has 13 goals to his name so far in 2017, which means he is well on his way to his best total in a single season. Five of them have been winners in 1-0 victories; four more staved off defeats. Many have been poacher's efforts but not all: one gravity defying strike, just after the Champions League final, drew comparisons with Mario Mandzukic's against Real Madrid. "I got excited by that goal, and I wanted to score a similar one," he said with a laugh afterward.
But that is only half the story because so much of his best work has been done in clutch moments. Jo has scored in six local derbies already this year, putting the hurt on all three of Corinthians' main rivals (Palmeiras, Santos and Sao Paulo) to the extent that the more excitable denizens of the Itaquera neighbourhood have taken to calling him the "God of Classicos."
Nor have goals been his sole currency. Jo has been a fine foil for the more fleet-footed members of the Corinthians front-line, occupying centre-backs so that Ángel Romero and Rodriguinho can burst into the box. More importantly, he has taken on a leadership role in the squad, making his wealth of experience -- not all of it positive -- count for something.
"Since he arrived, he has been a positive influence in the day-to-day life of the squad," Carille said. "He supports the younger players and is a really hard worker. He's getting the reward for that."
That description does not readily tally with the commonly held view of Jo, one forged in large part during his time in the Premier League. He arrived in England in July 2008 as Manchester City's record signing (the fee, believed to be in the region of £19 million, now looks like pocket change, of course) but struggled to make an impression under Mark Hughes and was farmed out on loan to Everton.
For a spell, there were signs that the player who had scored 47 goals in 83 matches for CSKA Moscow might be ready to re-emerge at Goodison Park. But Jo then pulled the old unauthorised-trip-home routine, which prompted an exasperated David Moyes to cut ties. He had one more go at City after six months with Galatasaray, but by then, it had become clear that he was ill-equipped to cope with the demands of the Premier League.
Jo has spoken candidly (and amusingly) about the challenges he faced during that period. These range from the physical (best characterised by Robinho's immortal quip while sizing up the Portsmouth squad in the tunnel at Fratton Park: "F--- me, Jo, are we going to play rugby here?") to the emotional, with the forward freely admitting that he lacked the maturity to handle the trappings of fame.
"By the end of my time there, I had already made so many dreams come true, and I lost my head," Jo told UOL Esporte recently. "I was married, but maybe I wanted to make the most of things while I was at the peak [of my fame]. I wanted to spread my wings and do things for myself without thinking about anyone else. That was my mistake."
Things did not improve much when he returned to Brazil. He found himself behind Leandro Damiao in the pecking order at Internacional and, having separated from his wife, threw himself into the playboy lifestyle with abandon. "I felt like the boss of everything, but I ended up going overboard," he conceded. "I was always tired, always sleepy."
Logically, a link-up with noted night owl Ronaldinho at Atletico Mineiro should have ended in disaster, but it was in Belo Horizonte that Jo began putting the pieces of his career back to together. There were parties, sure, but there were also goals and titles. Jo was top scorer as the Galo won the Copa Libertadores; he even earned an unlikely call-up to Brazil's World Cup squad in 2014.
We all know how that tournament ended, and many have wondered whether Luiz Felipe Scolari had Jo in mind when he admitted to regretting the selection of one member of his final 23. Either way, the latter has not represented his country since, with money-spinning spells with Al-Shabab and Jiangsu Suning having done little to further his cause in his homeland. Now, though, there are calls for him to earn a reprieve.
"I'd like to see him back in the national team," former Corinthians and Selecao striker Walter Casagrande said at one time. "He has been playing well, and you can tell from his interviews that he has changed as a person. He sees life differently and has plans for the future. He's more mature, as a player and as a man."
That is certainly true: There is a professionalism and a lightness to Jo that was absent even during his time at Atletico. The Corinthians factor is likely to have played some part -- he grew up cheering the Timao on in the terraces and won the Brazilian title with them as a teenager before moving to Europe -- but his attitude is that of a player who has taken the conscious decision to eke all he can from his considerable talent. The mischief years are over.
If anything is to hold him back, it won't be ambition; Jo himself is targeting a Brazil recall and already has one eye on a triumphant return to Russia next summer. "The way I'm playing with Corinthians, I think I'm very close," he said last month. "I'm different now -- more mature, more patient. If I stay at this level, an opportunity will come, even if I have to wait until just before the World Cup. It all depends on me."
That's a hard-earned lesson and one that, at 30, he is now beginning to heed.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football and the national team for ESPN FC.