In the decade prior to Fernandinho’s £34million transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk to Manchester City in June 2013, eight Brazilians had arrived at one of the Premier League’s two Manchester giants. They were, in chornological order, Kleberson, Anderson, Rafael, Jo, Robinho, Elano, Glauber and Maicon.
They were a diverse group of men from varying regions of Brazil and different backgrounds possessing wildly divergent degrees of footballing ability. But all of them had two things in common: firstly, they were all known by a single name; secondly, and far more importantly, they had all failed to fulfil expectations in English football.
Each of them – with the possible exceptions of Glauber and Rafael – had fed into the stereotype. Brazilian players are skilful, Brazilian players are talented, but Brazilian players can’t really be relied upon. They don’t work hard enough, do they? They ease off once they’ve made a few quid and bought their mum a nice gaff, right? They prefer the dancefloor to the training pitch, don’t they? (Yes, we’re looking at you, Jo).
‘So,’ we thought, ‘what about this Fernandinho lad?’ He’s 28 and he’s coming from Ukraine. He’s 28 and he’s never played in a major European league. He’s 28 and he’s thin as a rake. He’s 28 and he’s only got five caps for Brazil.
Even Kleberson – Kleberson! – had 20 caps to his name and a World Cup winners’ medal in the cupboard by the time he arrived at Manchester United.
‘So,’ we thought, ‘what about this Fernandinho lad?’ Will he really have the minerals to dislodge James Milner, Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry? Is he really the right player to help the noisy neighbours – who have just seen United beat them to the title by 11 points – become serial Premier League winners and Champions League contenders?
Well, yes, as it happens. And not only has Fernandinho done all that, but he managed to thrust himself into the conversation around the Premier League’s finest-ever holding midfielders as he went.
Now that he is leaving aged 37, we can see his legacy in sharper focus than ever. It is a legacy that shines, both literally and metaphorically. It shines literally because of the trophies that he’s won; four league titles (possibly five by Sunday) and seven domestic cups. He’s played almost 400 times for the most successful English club in the last decade.
But, just as significantly, his legacy shines metaphorically because, through his dogged consistency, unfailing professionalism and a little bit of cynical fouling (OK, quite a lot of cynical fouling), Fernandinho pulverised preconceptions and shat all over the stereotypes.
No longer are Brazilians seen as they once were. Now in the Premier League we have Ederson and Gabriel Jesus; Alisson, Firmino and Fabinho; Gabriels Martinelli and Magalhaes; Fred and Alex Telles; Bruno Guimaraes, Antony, Thiago Silva, Emerson Royal.
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They are all different – some brilliant, some not – but for the most part they are seen for what they are: committed pros and fighters, not the milk-and-water Brazilian party boys of the past. They each owe a debt to Fernandinho.
And when saying that crushing preconceptions is more important than his more material achievements, we are not putting words into Fernandinho’s mouth. Indeed, we’re regurgitating his.
After City beat Burnley 5-0 in October 2018, the Brazilian midfield workhorse said: “The biggest legacy I’ll maybe leave is the fact that I have re-opened doors for Brazilians at this club.” Not maybe, definitely. And not just this club, but this league, this country.
His journey has been remarkable. After arriving from Shakhtar – where he’d worked similar wonders in stereotype-smashing, learning the language fluently, earning the captain’s armband and building a bridge between the club’s Brazilian and Ukrainian contingents – he slotted perfectly into Manuel Pellegrini’s machine.
He played 46 games in his first season as City won the League Cup and wrested back the English league title. While Steven Gerrard, his midfield rival at title challengers Liverpool, drew the headlines, Fernandinho was happy to do his work away from the limelight, never missing a beat, never letting things slip.
His importance was perhaps most obvious in his absence. City lost just twice in the second half of that 2013-14 campaign, and one of those defeats came to Chelsea when City were without Fernandinho and lost control of midfield.
It was much the same in the subsequent campaigns. On the rare occasions Fernandinho was not there, it was painfully clear just how significant he’d become. In the first years under Guardiola, it was perhaps even more the case than under Pellegrini.
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The Catalan coach had already identified the Brazilian as one of his main men before arriving in Manchester. In one of his first press conferences he said: “I think Fernandinho can play in 10 positions.
“He has the quality to play wherever. He’s a quick, fast player, so intelligent, aggressive and strong in the air. He could play at centre-back. He has the quality to create good build-up play.”
Play at centre-back he has, especially in the 2019-20 campaign. But Guardiola knew his talents would be required in the most crucial position in any Guardiola team – the deepest of his midfield three.
It is an extremely difficult position to play, requiring a skillset beyond even most exceptional players’ reach. The fact that Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso are the defensive midfielders with most appearances for Guardiola at his previous two clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, tells you everything you need to know.
Fernandinho performed the role to perfection, adding a rougher, more Premier League edge to it as well. In 2016-17, Guardiola’s first and worst season in England, Fernandinho even battled a little too hard sometimes, getting sent off thrice in 32 league appearances.
Guardiola never wavered in his belief though. “I am so happy with [Fernandinho] and would be delighted if he continues for a long time here,” the City boss said after he’d returned from one of the suspensions. “He’s an important player for us. We have had to play a lot without him so I am happy he’s back.”
That faith – and a lucrative new contract signed in 2017 – was repaid over the coming two campaigns as Fernandinho helped City to consecutive league titles and a total of 198 points from their 76 games, conceding just 60 goals on the way.
There were glorious individual moments for the Brazilian too, the goals not bountiful but often worth waiting for. One that sticks out is the thunderous, 35-yard effort in a 7-2 demolition of Stoke in that first Guardiola title season.
But to reduce the Brazilian to moments would be wrong. He has forged the reputation he has within the game and standing he has at his club through his dedication, professionalism and leadership. Even in those shithouse tactical fouls that Guardiola requires of him – the ugliest element of his game – there is evidence of his team-before-self attitude.
Over his last three seasons, Fernandinho has had to shift position to cover for the departed Vincent Kompany and watch Rodri overtake him as the first-choice in that aforementioned midfield role. But as his on-pitch significance has diminished – and there’s no doubt his last season was one too far – his importance has in other ways been more conspicuous.
In March 2022, Fernandinho’s club-mate and countryman Ederson said: “He’s more than a captain, he guides the young players and supports the more experienced players. He helps us a lot in our day-to-day work.
“We know how important he is in the squad, he is a fundamental figure for our team and that reflects upon the eight years he’s been here at City.”
Guardiola, when he found out at a press conference that Fernandinho would be leaving last summer, concurred. “The role he plays this season… I like the people who behave behind the scenes,” he said. “I know what he has done, behind me, he handles many of our players and stars for the benefit of the team…
“[He’s been] an incredible player for Man City. There are things nobody knows but I know exactly.”
The only thing missing – and it is something that will doubtless frustrate him – was the Champions League. But as he said back in 2019, he has other, less tangible achievements to content himself with.
Stereotypes are invariably just that: stereotypes. They do not hold up when placed under scrutiny. But stereotypes retain their appeal because they provide a way to simplify the complicated and order the messy. As such, we often struggle to see beyond them until someone comes along and smashes the shit out of them.
For Brazilian footballers in England, Fernandinho’s done that with more force than he hit that 35-yarder against Stoke. For that, we salute him.
By Joshua Law
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