He may have only been at Sao Paulo for less than two weeks, but Fernandao’s impeccable debut display in the 2-0 win at Cruzeiro in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores quarter-final, allied to his instant rapport with the fans, suggest the veteran and O Tricolor Paulista could be made for each other. The deep-lying forward would love to cement that relationship with another cultured performance in tomorrow's return leg at the Morumbi.
Fernandao, a Libertadores and FIFA Club World Cup winner with Internacional in 2006, certainly brings plenty of experience to the mix, having also turned out for Goias (twice), Marseille, Toulouse and Qatari outfit Al Gharrafa. What is more, he has crossed paths many a time with his new side, the six-time Brazilian national champions, whose supporters would often try and convert him to their cause.
“I’ve had contact with the Tricolor fans for a while now," the 32-year-old told FIFA.com. "Because of the rumours that I might be coming here, whenever I was in Sao Paulo, or when I bumped into Sao Paulo supporters elsewhere in Brazil or abroad, they always treated me incredibly well and were really friendly. That meant that I’ve always been excited about the possibility of coming here.”
After a lengthy flirtation between the two parties, O Tricolor Paulista finally unveiled their man on 8 May, just four days prior to the Cruzeiro game in Minas Gerais. Slotting in seamlessly, Fernandao followed up a fine pass in the move that led to the first goal with a classy back-heeled assist for his side’s second.
“When it became clear I was in with a chance of playing, the level of expectation just took off,” he reflected. “But to have played like that on my debut, in a game the team won so well, helped even more. It was a great introduction. I was very happy with my performance and even more so with the win.”
The tall attacker was first sounded out by Sao Paulo back in 2007 through Tata, assistant to the club's former coach Muricy Ramalho. “He told me that if I got the chance to speak to the club, they would be interested in me,” said Fernandao, whose contract with Inter was coming to an end at the time. “But I ended up signing a new deal that season,” added the player, who remained with O Colorado until his switch to Qatari football in late 2008, where he stayed until returning to hometown club Goias in August 2009.
Though Ramalho is no longer at the club, Fernandao should have plenty in common with current boss Ricardo Gomes, who he knows from his spell in French football between 2001 and 2004: “We’ve had a bit of a chat about that period, and about Bordeaux (Gomes’s former club) and Marseille. He’s clearly got much stronger links with France than I have though. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of friends, but I’ve not been able to go back often.”
Another Gallic link is former Brazil star Rai. During his spell in France, the local press compared Fernandao to the former Sao Paulo fans’ favourite, who enjoyed a productive four-year sojourn at Paris Saint-Germain. “He’s always been someone I looked up to, and he’s still an icon,” said the Goiania-born player.
“But I think the comparisons are more physical than anything else, given that we’re both quite tall and good on the ball. When I first arrived (in France), people thought I was just a target man. Once they saw I could play one-twos and pass well, that’s when they made that comparison. But I don’t pay much heed, because Rai is a class apart.”
Fernandao also believes his time in Ligue 1 had an important impact on his tactical approach to the game, as well as his definitive conversion from midfielder to forward. “I was never a penalty-box player, the type who just battles it out with defenders," he explained.
"My game was always about touch, movement, getting involved in the play, playing one-twos, shielding the ball and keeping possession,” said a player who cites coaches Albert Emon and Alain Perrin as big influences on his positional change.
“There’s no doubt that France was a very important phase of my career. I’d already played as a midfielder in Brazil, but over there I really grew as a player. I started seeing the game differently, positioning myself better out on the pitch and learning to play facing towards goal, play through-balls and break into space.”
That tactical evolution clearly helped him in his subsequent career, notably with Internacional, and was once again in evidence in his Sao Paulo debut against Cruzeiro. “I’ve not made many debuts, because I’ve not played for many clubs," Fernandao said. "At Goias, my professional bow came in 1995 when I was 17. It went very well and I was man of the match. I won awards and was able to get a run of games under my belt at a young age.
“With Toulouse [when on loan from Marseille in 2003/04], we won away at Lille. At Inter, my debut was a 2-0 derby victory over Gremio, when I scored the 1,000th goal in the history of the Gre-Nal clássico. I also scored twice on my debut in Qatar, and what a way to have started here (at Sao Paulo) too.”
Indeed, Fernandao's touch and ability to hold the ball up before bringing speedy attackers Marlos and Dagoberto, and the classy Hernanes, into play was a vital ingredient in the first-leg win at Cruzeiro, who were previously unbeaten on home soil in this year’s Libertadores.
So, with coach Gomes proclaiming that Fernandao had played like he had been at the club for years, how has he been able to settle so quickly? “I’m really feeling as if I’ve been at Sao Paulo for ages,” he said as the interview drew to a close. “I’ve had such a warm welcome from everybody, not just the players but the security guards, the kit man, the masseur and the physios. You’re so well looked-after here, all you need to do is train well and do your job on the pitch.”