Few Brazilian fans had even heard of Fernandinho when Mano Menezes called him up for a Brazil get-together in Barcelona last September. Liking what he saw, the newly-appointed Seleção coach gave the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder a starting place in the friendly against Germany back in August, Fernandinho taking the place of the widely acclaimed Paulo Henrique Ganso no less.
The former Atletico Paranaense youth discovery has kept his place in the Seleção set-up since then, having been handed the responsibility of improving the team’s passing game from the advanced holding position in which he prefers to play. After performing that role for the first time for his country against Ghana in September, Fernandinho will be attempting to orchestrate the play once more when the Brazilians take on Egypt in Doha tomorrow.
Breaking off from his preparations for Brazil’s latest friendly test, the midfield organiser spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his preferred position, his rapid promotion to the national team and their prospects ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
FIFA.com: You’ve had a great 2011, coming back from injury to win domestic titles with Shakhtar and a place in the Brazil team. Has it been the best year of your career?
Fernandinho: I don’t really know. To be honest, I only really came back into the team [after injury] in May and yet I still managed to pick up two titles [the Ukrainian league and cup]. The new season started well for me. I shook off my old injury and regained peak fitness, and within a month I got the call-up to the national team. Playing for Brazil is without doubt the best thing that’s happened to me since I started my career eight years ago. I went through a tough patch, but everything’s turned around really quickly.
You were called up for the friendly with Germany, started the game and you’ve stayed in the squad ever since. How do you explain your sudden rise?
It’s all happened very quickly but it’s come about because I was training hard at the start of the season, when everyone else was taking it more slowly and just trying to get fit again. The Germany game was a baptism of fire for me but I think I fitted in well. The team’s improving, the new players coming in have done well and the mood in the squad is good. That’s the way forward because we need to be a team if we’re going to win the World Cup. The matches we’ve got coming up are crucial.
Many Brazil fans weren’t familiar with you to begin with. Have they got to know you better now?
Well, it’s only natural they didn’t know me that well because not many people keep up with the Ukrainian championship. The only time we get any exposure is when we play in the Champions League, but for the people who follow the game, it wasn’t a surprise. I left Brazil at a young age but I’ve achieved big things with Shakhtar and made my name in Europe. Mano’s obviously been keeping an eye on me, and on other players who left Brazil early. I think he can see that I’ve come on in a physical, technical and tactical sense, and I think that’s why he’s brought me in.
Expectations are really high ahead of the World Cup and the players can sense that. We don’t want to let people down in 2014.
You’ve played as the third central midfielder in a five-man midfield and in an advanced holding role for Brazil. Which position do you prefer?
I’ve never hidden the fact that I prefer playing in the more advanced holding role. I’d played in a few positions - full-back, attacking midfielder and as a withdrawn striker even - but after I’d been at Shakhtar for a while I had a chat with Mircea Lucescu. I told him it would be better for me to drop back a bit because we had a lot of good Brazilian players in attacking positions. He agreed, so we tried it out and that’s when we won the UEFA Cup. That was a turning point in my career I think. Mano played me a bit further forward in the Germany game, but I played in a more withdrawn position against Ghana and I think I put in a much better performance.
Is that how you see yourself, as a holding midfielder who can bring the ball out and create play?
Well, it all depends on the formation. I’ve been bringing the ball out from deep for my club for a while now and I think I can do the same for A Seleção. The way I see it, Brazil aren’t going to improve just by lumping balls up the pitch like other teams do. That’s not our style. There’s no point in having Ronaldinho, Neymar and Hulk and trying to get them to win high balls. And I think I’ve got a lot to offer when it comes to making that transition between defence and attack, by passing the ball along the ground.
Indeed, Leandro Damiao’s winner in the September friendly against Ghana came from your defence-splitting pass. Have Brazil turned the corner now after some unimpressive results?
I think so, but I don’t see the Copa America campaign or the defeat to Germany as anything out of the ordinary. At the end of the day, this is an experimental phase for us. The Ghana game was a confidence booster and I think the team’s started getting it together and growing in stature since then. Everyone, from the people already in the team to the new guys coming in, has been helping each other out. The midfielders are getting forward to attack and the forwards are dropping back to defend. That’s the only way and I think we’re on the right track.
What are your personal expectations for 2012, and how do you think the year will go for Brazil, with the Olympics coming up and preparations continuing for the FIFA World Cup?
I think everything’s linked together, and I hope to keep on starring for my club and performing consistently for Brazil. My aim is to maintain my form and stay in the team, and hopefully it’ll be a successful year for us because we want to be on top form for the 2013 Confederations Cup. That’ll be our first big test in front of our fans. Expectations are really high ahead of the World Cup and the players can sense that. We don’t want to let people down in 2014.
One last question on Shakhtar. Last season you reached the last eight of the UEFA Champions League and this season you’re struggling. Why the downturn?
I can’t explain it. Shakhtar are looking to become one of the big teams but they haven’t got there yet. When you achieve something big one year, if you lose your focus the next then you tend to take a backwards step. And I think that’s what’s happened. We’re going through a testing phase right now and there’s a lot of pressure on us to qualify. We know we’ve got what it takes, but the problem now is that we need results to go our way. All we can do is beat APOEL and Porto and hope for the best.