Bruno Fernandes is embracing the weight of expectation accompanying Portugal’s footballers at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
Speaking prior to Tuesday’s last-16 meeting with Switzerland and warming to his subject, the whip-smart Manchester United midfielder calls that pressure “a privilege”.
Fernandes’s outlook is illustrative of a player savouring his increased standing in Fernando Santos’s glittering Portugal team. The 28-year-old was a peripheral figure in two previous major tournaments. Santos removed Fernandes from his starting XI following Portugal’s opening match at Russia 2018 and did likewise after two matches at last year’s UEFA EURO.
Now, the Portugal coach wouldn’t countenance the idea of going into a pivotal game without Fernandes pulling the strings. The midfielder scored both goals in the clinical 2-0 victory over Uruguay that secured Portugal’s group-stage progress at the earliest opportunity. He laid on two decisive late goals when Ghana were beaten 3-2 in the opening match.
Fernandes attributes a comparatively belated switch from chorus line to headline act – he gained global prominence on the club scene following a move to Old Trafford in January 2020 – to the single-minded determination that persuaded him to abandon home comforts for an “all-or-nothing” move to Novara in Italy at the tender age of 17. “If I hadn’t had that experience, which was uncommon for Portuguese players then, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Fernandes.
Back to the present and that place where Fernandes finds himself today. The player with 51 caps was rested for Portugal’s final group match, against Korea Republic, to preserve his legs for knockout football. Competing in a World Cup, says Fernandes, is “the peak of any player’s career”.
The Round of 16 match at Lusail Stadium is impossible to call. Portugal met Switzerland twice in the space of one week in June. Santos’s team won 4-0 at home before the Swiss achieved revenge of sorts with a 1-0 victory back in Geneva. The only certainty is that, should Fernandes score, he will indulge in the familiar hands-over-ears celebration dedicated to his young daughter Matilde.
Fernandes shared the origins of the celebration – and a whole lot more – in this candid interview.
FIFA: You’re a senior figure in this Portugal team and have led the way with your performances in Qatar. Do you feel increasing pressure as one of the players on whom the country is pinning its hopes for success?
Bruno Fernandes: No, I don’t have that kind of feeling. My goal is to help the team… and represent my country in the best way. The pressure on me is to represent my country, my people, my family, all my friends. All those who over the years have seen me grow. And all those who over the years of my still short career have seen me play.
Obviously, the biggest weight we have is representing our country, that’s our biggest pressure. But it is a very positive pressure, because it is a huge privilege.
Those people who watched your evolution saw you go to Italy very young and ultimately stay in the country for five years before going home to Sporting Clube de Portugal in 2017. What did you draw from the Italian experience and does it influence you today?
I think everyone had to work hard in their own way to reach the level where we are today, which is the World Cup. I’ve always been like this, since childhood, focused on my goals, abroad or not. Even if I hadn’t gone abroad, I’d have found another way. I’d have had to find a way to get to the level I wanted. Going abroad early on has made me grow a great deal. A different culture, different football. A different pressure.
When I went to Italy, it was all or nothing. I knew there would be no way back. I would waste two or three years of my career, and it would be difficult to spark their [clubs’] interest again, if I didn’t do well. Fortunately, everything went well and I took a great leap forward.
I began to grow, gradually, the way I intended to, until I achieved the level I am at now.
I’m grateful it went the way it did. It led me to meet new cultures, new people. Many friends I made there helped me become a better person and a better player. If I hadn’t had that experience, which was uncommon for Portuguese players then, I wouldn’t be here today.
Playing in the World Cup is one thing, scoring in the tournament is another matter entirely. How did it feel to grab your first World Cup goals against Uruguay?
It’s hard to explain something I’ve dreamed about from young. Only those who have lived this experience know exactly how it feels. We know this is the biggest competition in the world. I feel really proud to have scored, to have helped the team win the game, which was the most important thing.
To me, scoring a goal for the national team is incredible. It’s a moment that makes us so proud because, in my opinion, representing our country is the peak of any player’s career.
You celebrated in a style supporters of your current and former clubs would recognise, placing your hands over your ears. What was the inspiration for this routine?
It started when I was at Sporting [Lisbon], my daughter would do that to cover her ears and not listen to me or my wife tell her off when she did something wrong. But it worked and it stuck. My daughter understands this celebration is dedicated to her. My son is also old enough to understand. When people ask how their father celebrates, both of them know how and why I do it, that it’s dedicated to them.
That it’s a sign their father did something for them. Nowadays my life is fully dedicated to them. Everything I do from now on will be for their sake. When you become a father, you know how it feels to have someone who, regardless of what happens, will always be there with a smile and open arms, even when the games are not so good. They are still too innocent to understand the world or the world of football. They are also my biggest strength, together with my wife, my parents and my siblings.
Back to the football, finally. Switzerland stand between Portugal reaching the country’s first World Cup quarter-final since 2006…
Regardless of the opponent, our goal would always be the same: to move to the next phase. We know Switzerland well, we’ve played them a few times. We’ve had a win and a loss [this year]. The goal is to take the positive aspects from these games, fix the less positive ones, and put on the best performance possible.