When they talk about Fernando Meligeni, many people say the former tennis player is more Brazilian than most. And that is because the 41-year-old is not only Brazilian, he is Brazilian by choice.
Born in Buenos Aires, Fininho moved to Brazil with his parents when he was still a child and, though he returned to Argentina to complete his development in youth tennis, he always made it abundantly clear just how Brazilian he feels. This level of patriotism shone through in his 29 Davis Cup matches for the country and when draping himself in the green-and-yellow flag, tears streaming down his face, after winning a gold medal at the 2003 Pan American Games.
As part of this series of FIFA.com interviews with celebrities from other walks of life, we spoke to the former world No25 and three-time ATP title winner about his relationship with football, the sport which is lived and breathed in both his countries – the one of his birth and the nation that won his heart.
FIFA.com: Let’s kick off with a subject that I’m sure you’ve spoken about many times before, but this time it concerns football not tennis. Will you support Brazil or Argentina at the next FIFA World Cup™?
Fernando Meligeni: (laughs) I’ll be cheering for Brazil. I’m Brazilian, it’s as simple as that. Of course I’ve got a huge soft spot for Argentina as it’s where I was born and it’s my parents’ country, but human beings go through changes in life and my becoming Brazilian is really special to me. But my sister, for example, came over here at the same time as me but to her there’s no doubt in her mind: she supports Argentina. I think the big difference comes down to me having represented Brazil, like I did so many times in the Davis Cup as well as at the Pan American Games.
But your earliest FIFA World Cup memories are from Argentina, right?
Ah, that’s right. I clearly remember my dad going mad when we won the world title in 1978, then us all celebrating together after the 1986 win. But since then I always associate the World Cup with the country I’ve chosen. Even now back at the family home, when A Seleção are on TV everybody teases me by saying “look, ‘your team’ are playing”. (laughs)
Playing football is a popular pursuit among a lot of players on the tennis circuit, isn’t it?
Yes, definitely, there are loads of guys that play. Particularly the Brazilians, Argentinians and Spaniards: all three of which are football-crazy countries and generally have a lot of tennis players travelling together on the clay-court scene, which is the favoured surface for players from these countries. For a long time several of these tournaments – even the Brazil Open, when it was held on the Costa do Sauipe (in Bahia) – used to have a compulsory kickabout among the tennis players. But later on things got a bit too intense and a few guys got injured (laughs). Nowadays it’s harder to see the guys playing in a proper match, but there are still loads of football-mad people on the circuit.
I think the pressure on A Seleção to win here in 2014 is going to be greater than any team has ever had to endure.
Besides which, it’s not just playing, you get to watch games too. That’s one of the biggest perks we get when we’re on tour: tournament organisers know that people love the game and always sort out tickets for us. Over the course of my career I saw so many great matches that way, such as Bayern Munich, the Roma-Lazio derby, two Barcelona-Real Madrid clásicos. It became an obligatory part of our routine. Back then I used to piggyback on the reputation of Guga [Brazilian ex-tennis player Gustavo Kuerten, a former world No1] and get in everywhere! (laughs)
Any other particularly special trips?
I’ve a great story from 1998, from the ATP event in Gstaad, Switzerland. Guga and I were both knocked out in the second round of the singles and then he got an invite he couldn’t refuse: tickets to go and see the World Cup Final in Paris. Then it turned out we reached the final of the doubles, which was on the Sunday – the same day as the game! So, we took to the court, with one eye on the ball and one of our watches, hoping we’d still have time to catch the plane to France to see Brazil in the Final. We were up against a Czech guy called Cyril Suk and the Argentinian Daniel Orsanic, a mate of ours going way back. It was really comical: Guga and I were desperate to finish the match quickly, while Orsanic was walking really slowly during every changeover, saying stuff like “Listen, I think I’ve got a bit of a twinge. I’m going to get the physio on, you guys aren’t in a hurry, right?” (laughs) In the end, Guga and I won in two sets and still managed to get to the Final on time, so everything went perfect. Well, except the result [France beat Brazil 3-0] that is! (laughs)
Having represented Brazil so many times, how do you think A Seleção will find playing at home come 2014?
Well, that’s where there’s a huge difference between tennis and football. For me, I always saw playing at home as a real plus. Even when things went wrong, such as when we lost against Australia in Florianopolis in the Davis Cup for example, I never felt under added pressure due to playing at home. I felt sad to have let the fans down, but I never felt under pressure. But with football it’s a different story altogether: the pressure’s going to be a problem. When it comes to football, Brazilians are incredibly passionate. I think the pressure on A Seleção to win here in 2014 is going to be greater than any team has ever had to endure.
What kind of atmosphere are you expecting in Brazil come the FIFA World Cup?
It’s going to be a brilliant World Cup. It’ll be different to the ones a lot of people are used to seeing in Europe: things are different over here. But I think it’ll be the perfect opportunity to showcase one of the wonderful qualities of Brazilian people: their friendly, kind, hospitable nature and the way they’re always smiling. Even more so during the World Cup, as the whole country is going to revolve around that. Whoever comes over here is definitely going to have a brilliant time, over and above the matches themselves.