Bruno Fernandes has taken an indirect route to the top, but now he’s here to stay.
Portuguese midfield ace Bruno Fernandes, already established as a Manchester United talisman after swapping the green-and-white hoops of Sporting CP in Portugal for Old Trafford red in the January transfer window, has been a footballing head-turner for as long as he can remember.
Even as a fresh-faced seven, eight or nine-year-old schoolboy – growing up in the northern town of Maia, some 10km to the north of Porto – his talent attracted admiring glances like moths to a flame, with Porto’s two elite teams, FC Porto and Boavista hell-bent on luring him away from mother club, FC Sao Mamede de Infesta.
The odds at the time were heavily stacked in favour of FC Porto. Not only were FCP the bigger, more prestigious outfit – reigning Portuguese champions and en route to their second European Cup – The Dragons also knew that Bruno was a rabid fan of theirs and viscerally inclined to say yes in a hurry. Yet somehow Boavista managed to swing the deal, signing the youngster a couple of months before his 10th birthday in the summer of 2004.
So just what was Boavista’s trump card in the battle to bring in Bruno? According to his elder brother Ricardo – who once was a winger in the Porto regional league – the clincher came in the form of a van. “The big stumbling block was that neither my father (Jose) or mother (Virginia) could drive,” Ricardo explained to leading Portuguese football website Maisfutebol. “It was a major problem to get Bruno to training sessions. Unlike FC Porto, Boavista offered transport. They could pick up and return the kids. That made things so much easier. This is why Bruno opted for Boavista.”
All those who knew him at Infesta, a club based in the town of Matosinhos, north-west of Porto, had more than an inkling that the kid was destined to make the pro grade. They loved his extraordinary skill levels – honed in endless games of street football in Maia – gutsy attitude and willingness to work on the weak points of his game.
Sergio Marques, his first coach at Infesta, was a highly influential figure in those early, formative years and, in an interview with the Publico newspaper, spoke about the nuts and bolts of the youngster’s soccer apprenticeship. “On Tuesdays, I used to train him on a one-to-one basis,” said Marques. “Together we would work on his passing, ball control, possession retention and heading. To start with, he only seemed to want to go forward and keep the ball himself. I soon realised though that he would go far. With the ball at his feet, he would risk everything. He’d be the first to arrive at training, prepared well and was open and communicative with everyone. He had a great shot and has always showed a will-to-win streak.”
Young Bruno could be a little hard to handle at times. He could be wilful and undisciplined and was all too ready to stand up for himself. Ricardo remembers his younger brother giving short shrift to a coach at Infesta who rubbed him up the wrong way. “The coach in question sometimes would point to him and say ‘take care, child’,” revealed Ricardo in the Diario de Noticias newspaper. Bruno would reply: “‘If I’m a child, then I don’t play.’ He gave everything on the pitch. Some referees would ask that he be substituted before he was sent off. He wasn’t being nasty. He simply was aggressive in a positive sense.
“Bruno always took part in kick-abouts on the street involving me and my friends. We were all much older than him, but he had no fear. To him, it made no difference how old someone was. Whether they were fat or thin. He’s the same today. Nothing scares him.”
While a competitive fire has always burned brightly in him, sometimes the lapping flames would force the fire brigade to attend. As a schoolboy or junior, he would often overstep the temperamental mark, reacting badly to adversity and even sparking fights with team-mates on the training ground. It was not uncommon for him to be sent to the dressing room to cool off. Truth to tell, he had too much desire for his own good. Apart from making it big in football, he simply had no future Plan B. The game was his escape route, the sole path to a better life for him and his family. He was obsessed with following in the footsteps of his idols: Brazilian ball-artist Ronaldinho and Portugal’s midfield general Joao Moutinho.
Times invariably were hard for the Fernandes clan in Maia. His father’s pay packet from his job at a local textile factory barely was enough to cover the bills and home was a cramped apartment on a council estate. Little wonder Bruno emerged as the archetypal hungry and single-minded fighter. He lived for the game and dreamt about it too, according to Ricardo. “We slept in the same bedroom and on the eve of a big match, especially if he was about to face FC Porto, he’d be talking in his sleep: ‘Pass, shoot’.”
Boavista, a team famous for their black-and-white checked shirts, turned out to be the perfect spot for Bruno to hone his craft. Over the years, the club’s academy had churned out an amazing number of Portuguese internationals – including strikers Joao Pinto and Nuno Gomes, full-back Jose Bosingwa, midfielders Raul Meireles and Andre Gomes, and centre-back Ricardo Costa – and the coaching philosophy and guidance there was second to none.
Taking their inspiration from the famous Ajax coaching manual, youth instructors at Boavista placed a premium on nurturing versatility in their academy pupils and very much did so in Bruno’s case. Besides operating in more or less every midfield position – out wide, as a No.10 or in a box-to-box role – Fernandes also spent a great deal of playing time in central defence. “Although he hated it on the whole, he did quite like being in a position where he could see the game unfold before him,” said Ricardo. “He did have that important ability to read the game. He seemed a good sweeper.”
The next module in his football education was a loan spell with the Under-15s and 16s at Pasteleira, a nearby Boavista satellite club. This was a coming of age period for Bruno. Delighted to be restored to an attacking midfield role, his form was consistently brilliant and, as the cherry on the cake, he began to show undeniable leadership qualities.
It was around this time that Fernandes first crossed paths with fellow Premier League midfielder Andre Gomes, and their careers have followed similar trajectories. Both currently feature in midfield for Portugal, both exploded at Boavista as teenagers and both starred for Pasteleira. But for Remulo Marques, a former Pasteleira vice-president and Boavista director of sport, the pair can be easily distinguished. “Curiously not many people at Pasteleira have memories of Andre Gomes, while everyone there remembers Bruno Fernandes,” Marques told Maisfutebol. “He was the puny kid who could dribble around the entire world and eventually became an outstanding performer.”
At the age of 17, Fernandes looked a sure thing to imminently break into the Boavista first team, so his decision to join Italian second division side Novara for just over €42,000 in the summer of 2012 came totally out of the blue. The man responsible for making it happen was Novara scout Javier Ribalta, an astute Spanish talent spotter, who would later work for Juventus and Manchester United, and now as Zenit’s sporting director. Ostensibly in Portugal to run the rule over another young player, Ribalta could not take his eyes off Fernandes and duly convinced Novara general manager Cristiano Giaretta and youth sector chief Mauro Borghetti to recruit him.
Despite a few early bouts of homesickness, Bruno did not take long to make his mark at the Piedmont club. In his first game for the Novara youth team, he scored a memorable goal, jinking past a half-dozen opponents before coolly slotting home. A little later, he was up to his old tricks again, this time in a junior fixture against Sampdoria. The essence of the highlight reel? A cheeky nutmeg en route to an assist. By November, he was a first-teamer, making his debut as a late substitute in a Serie B fixture versus Citadella. His first piece of the action that day has gone down in Novara folklore, demanding the ball from club skipper Andrea Lisuzzo, taking on and beating three defenders and hitting the bar with a long-range rocket. He was now off and running. Over the course of that rookie season he was quite magnificent, playing a key role as Novara sensationally went from relegation strugglers to play-off participants.
Such was his impact in the Italian second tier, a queue of top-flight clubs began to form, with Udinese proving to be the most persuasive of suitors. He would enjoy three fine seasons at the Stadio Friuli, consistently catching the eye with his speed off the mark, elusiveness on the ball, strong personality and adaptability.
In August 2016, he moved to Sampdoria on a 12-month loan deal and while he did not set the Genoa-based club alight with his goalscoring prowess – netting just five times in 33 Serie A games in 2016-17 – he continued to mature both as a player and a man. The fans at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris adored their No.10 and were bitterly disappointed when the news broke in June 2017 that he was heading back to Portugal, joining Sporting for €8.5million.
Sporting certainly would get their money’s worth. Portugal’s Player Of The Year in both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, Fernandes essentially was Mr Sporting, an exceptional mix of wonderful passing range, dynamism, finishing power and role model captaincy. During two-and-a-half seasons in Lisbon, he netted 64 goals in all competitions and provided 52 assists. In the 2018-19 season alone, he racked up no fewer than 33 competitive goals, thus making him the most prolific midfield marksman in a major European league.
He also helped Sporting claim a clutch of prizes (two Portuguese League Cups and the domestic cup). But there would be moments of pain and despair too. Club president, Bruno de Carvalho, angered by the team’s failure to qualify for the Champions League and lack of progress in the Europa League, took to aiming verbal volleys at the squad and, in May 2018, the bottom of the barrel was scraped, with irate fans attacking players and trashing the training ground. Fernandes was one of seven players to terminate their own contracts, though he later decided to re-sign. It says much for his professionalism and dedication to the cause that the following season he raised his game to an even higher plane.
He was a boon for Sporting, and Sporting were good for him. While starring in Italy, full international honours remained at a distance, but he immediately earned his call-up papers on returning to the motherland in the summer of 2017, initially deployed as a bench warmer in a number of World Cup 2018 qualifiers, then winning his first cap in a 3-0 friendly win over Saudi Arabia in November 2017. A member of the Portugal squad which competed at the 2018 World Cup finals, he has been an automatic starter for his country for the past year or so, notably contributing to the conquest of the UEFA Nations League title last year.
Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer the only heavyweight in the Portuguese ranks. The slightly-built Fernandes is equally equipped to carry an attacking load.
Words by Nick Bidwell