Fernando was just a newly arrived 21-year-old when Porto were given the daunting mission of halting a Manchester United side led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in the quarter-finals of the 2009 UEFA Champions League. Though unable to prevent Os Dragões from going out of the competition, the Brazilian midfielder acquitted himself well. Despite his lack of experience, he earned praise for his tireless running in tracking down United’s star men and providing cover for his defence.
His performance also earned him an unusual nickname from the Porto faithful, one that symbolised the increasingly strong ties the player would forge with the fans from that point on.
“I remember people started calling me Polvo (Octopus) but I didn’t really understand why,” he told FIFA.com. “Later they told me it was because I ran a lot, because I seemed to be everywhere and had lots of legs. It was an encouraging sign of recognition for me.”
The nickname stuck thanks to Fernando’s ability to keep on delivering the same kind of industrious and effective performances as he produced against Manchester United. In doing also he also attracted little attention from referees, picking up only a small number of cautions so far in his career, quite an achievement for a holding midfielder. Coupled with his excellent disciplinary record, his consistent displays quickly made him a first choice in the Porto line-up and a mainstay of three-championship winning sides.
“It’s a characteristic of mine. I’ve always done what the teams needed to get results,” he explained. “That’s why I prefer to keep out of the limelight, but I think it’s good sometimes to be discreet because it shows how much I’m contributing to the team. That’s part of my job.”
Low profile or not, Fernando has still managed to pick up a string of winner’s medals during his five-year association with Porto, helping the club collect a UEFA Europa League trophy, three Liga ZON Sagres titles and three Taças de Portugal. In that time the 25-year-old has also earned plenty of respect and is regarded as one of the more senior members of the Porto dressing room, along with Helton, Lucho Gonzalez and Joao Moutinho, who arrived at the club after Fernando.
Discussing his rank in the squad, Fernando said: “Porto always work with young players and they always renew the squad, which has made me one of the most experienced players. There’s also the fact I’ve been playing very well for a long time now.
“The youngsters, like Danilo, Alex Sandro, James Rodriguez and Kelvin, ask me about my experiences, and I just try to tell them how I got this far. I talk to them about adapting and give them advice on how to get used to the football here and make a go of it. I’m not old by any means but I do see myself as an experienced player and successful with it.”
Waiting for the call
While he enjoys no shortage of prestige in Portugal, Fernando is a virtual unknown back in Brazil. Many a team-mate, and rival for that matter, have wondered why a player who delivers such consistent performances has yet to represent his country, with Argentinian colleague Lucho Gonzalez recently commenting: “No one ever talks about Fernando, but he’s a player who’s shown he can play at international level. I don’t understand why he’s not a first-choice in the Brazil side.”
Though he has no explanation for it, Fernando has far from given up hope of a call-up one day: “I always check when the team’s announced and I’m still hopeful. I get letters from fans and they ask me about the national team, and all I can say is that I’m going to keep on working. I get a lot of exposure here in Europe but not in Brazil because I left home early. I play like a European now and not at all like a Brazilian holding midfielder.”
As he went on to say, his style of play found little favour with the likes of former Seleção coach Mano Menezes, who has always had a preference for attacking midfielders. The arrival of Luiz Felipe Scolari in the Brazil dugout could see a change in Fernando’s luck, however. Portugal’s national team coach between 2003 and 2008, Scolari knows Portuguese football inside out and is not averse to using deep-lying midfielders, as he showed in steering Brazil to the world title at Korea/Japan 2002.
“I think defensive midfielders bring balance to any team, like Gilberto Silva and Dunga did before,” he said. “There aren’t any in Brazil, which could work in my favour and which is why I’m still hopeful of getting my chance. I get the feeling he’s going to need a midfielder like that soon.”
In the meantime, Fernando will continue to devote his energies to Porto’s cause as they push for glory on the domestic and European front. Locked in a title championship battle with Benfica, Os Dragões also take on Malaga on Tuesday in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie in the Champions League, a competition the Brazilian midfielder is hoping they can make further progress in.
“It’s going to be a tight tie because we’re two teams that are set up in the same way. That’s why we need to put in a good performance at home,” he said. “The team is strong, we’re playing well and I’m sure we’re going to win more trophies this year.”
Should they do so, the shy and retiring Fernando will perhaps get the widespread exposure and recognition his polished play deserves.