When one thinks about Portuguese football, the mind immediately flies to Benfica, Porto and Sporting, three of the cornerstones of the country, supported by millions of fans all over the world. The academies are state-of-the-art, therefore plenty of players are coming through the system and starting to shine at a young age.
It was the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, who was snapped up by Manchester United at the age of 18 years old after five years played for Sporting, where he shone like a diamond. Back then, Bruno Fernandes was 10 years Ronaldo’s junior, but was watching the Portuguese captain like an idol.
And this is why he refused to follow his father, who moved in Switzerland when Bruno was little, due to Portugal having a better youth system. He dreamed about representing his national team and becoming a star on the biggest of stages. But at first, he had to work hard and make sacrifices.
“My father did not always let me play because when you are young, you want to do all the tricks and when you play against older people, they start kicking you. My dad was also kicking me and he was pretty strong! In football, there will always be someone older than you or with greater experience. It is about becoming smarter than them and working out your weapons to beat them,” said Fernandes for “The Athletic”.
The first odd choice was not going to Porto’s academy, rather than choosing the other club in the city, Boavista, due to a small provision in the negotiations with the club – Boavista provided him transport to and from training, while Porto could not.
But the biggest change came in 2012, when he was 18 years old, when he decided to leave Portugal and try his luck in Italy. He chose a Serie B side, Novara, despite his huge potential, being convinced that it could only help him progress if he thrives in a new country, whose language he did not speak.
At first, it looked impossible.
“I received the minimum wage, which was €1,500, but I only started receiving it in February,” he recalled in an interview with RTP. “Between June and February I only had the €50 my mother had given me. That money lasted all this time because I lived at the academy, I had everything I needed,” said Fernandes.
Soon, his girlfriend came to Italy to join him and he started to become better and better, as he started speaking the language. Dubbed the “Maradona of Novara” and “the new Rui Costa”, Fernandes made huge waves in the Serie B, as much as Inter Milan and Juventus wanted to sign him.
Instead, he took the “step by step” approach literally and chose another mid-table side, Udinese, in the North of Italy, another unglamourous choice that proved to be the right one.
“I don’t know if I’m the most competitive but I think no one is more than me. Always in my mind, you can have the same as me but you can’t have more than me,” said Fernandes in an interview back in 2018.
After a stint at Sampdoria, Fernandes thought it was high time to return to Portugal and signed for Porto’s rivals, Sporting, for a €8.5 million fee, which meant almost nothing for a team used to sell players for tens of millions.
He settled in immediately and three years later, he became one of Manchester United’s biggest-ever signing for a reported €60 million fee, settling in immediately and delivering excellent performances throughout the first seasons, with an excellent display.
He also became one of the most loved players of the team, for his no-nonsense style, that made fans immediately fall in love with him.
“It’s who I am. What you see on the pitch is the Bruno who is passionate for the game, who will not give anything away. I can even fight with somebody who is my friend away from the pitch. I play against Wolves and there are many Portuguese players, but if I have to kick them, I will kick them. If I have to moan at them, I will,” said Fernandes.
Eventually, he also made his mark for Portugal, where he has 13 goals in 53 matches for the national team, including a brace against Uruguay at Qatar 2022. Those were his two goals in the tournament, as Portugal fell against Morocco in the quarter-finals and Fernandes left the competition in tears.
Sure, the midfielder is only 28 years old and another FIFA World Cup will come, with Portugal boasting an excellent generation. Yet time is running out for the most motivated player on the pitch.