“Gelson is like a smaller version of Patrick Vieira - he doesn't stop running and he puts his tackles in too.”
If that description by his erstwhile Manchester City team-mate Micah Richards is anything to go by, Gelson Fernandes sounds like a fearsome character - on the pitch at least. Yet, just like the veteran Frenchman to whom he is compared, the Switzerland midfielder is known as an engaging and likeable person off it.
FIFA.com found that out when catching up with the smiling 23-year-old, who was born on the Cape Verde Islands and has done much to raise the country’s footballing reputation. A player who sees the game as a passion - second in importance only to his family - rather than a job, Fernandes has never been afraid to show his emotions.
He also known in the game as something of an intellectual, the result of his ability to speak several languages, a gift that the disarmingly modest player continues to nurture. “I was born in a country where people speak Portuguese and it wasn’t long before my mother taught me Creole as well,” explained the linguist, a cousin to Portugal’s Manuel Fernandes.
“When we moved to Switzerland I went to a school where we learned French, Swiss-German and Italian. And, of course, when I moved to Manchester I had to learn English. I’m now studying Spanish and Chinese, but that’s only for pleasure, I can assure you (laughs).”
After moving with his mother to the Swiss canton of Valais at the age of five, Fernandes joined the youth ranks of FC Sion. He made his professional debut in 2004 and went on to become one of the leading players at the club, making nearly 100 appearances in three seasons and forming part of the side that won the Swiss Cup in 2006.
Climbing his way up Switzerland’s national youth ranks, he impressed in an U-21 match against England. His performance in that game attracted the attention of Manchester City, who paid €6m for him in the summer of 2007, the second-highest ever fee for a Swiss player.
“At the time it was still a family club, the ideal place to grow and develop when you fly the nest,” said Gelson. But after a promising first season at Eastlands, the youngster experienced setback after setback in his second, competition for places and a string of niggling injuries consigning him to the bench for most of the campaign.
When Saint-Etienne made him an offer last summer, he wasted little time in accepting it. Taking a few weeks to adjust to life in Ligue 1, he recaptured his best form and became a linchpin in Les Verts' line-up, his experience and aggression galvanising a side previously regarded as a soft touch.
His never-say-die approach and steely temperament have also been appreciated by former Switzerland coach Kobi Kuhn and his successor Ottmar Hitzfeld, who has made him a central part of his plans for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. First called up by his adopted country in 2007, Gelson played in all of their games at UEFA EURO 2008 and appeared in six out of ten of their qualifiers for the upcoming global finals.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of taking on the rest of the world is one that fills him with anticipation: “Being selected for the World Cup is even more exciting than playing in the European Championships at home. I’m looking forward to it so much. It’s a childhood dream come true.”
Although he considers himself a true Valaisan, Gelson is thrilled that the FIFA World Cup is being held for the first time in Africa, the continent of his birth. “I consider myself to be both a true Swiss and an African,” he said. “It makes me feel very, very proud to be taking part in this competition. It’s a reward for many, many years of hard work for the continent.”
About to do battle with Spain, Honduras and Chile in Group H, Switzerland have high hopes of progressing to the Round of 16, although the highly-committed midfielder is refusing to set any limits.
“We have to be ambitious,” Fernandes stated. “After all, we qualified before quite a few major European teams, and we have a young and very talented team. We can go far. I’m sure of that.”