Bruno Fernandes and the long game

Photo: Reuters
What strikes Martelinho, whenever he watches Bruno Fernandes play, is how little he has changed. Fernandes might now be the best player on the in-form team in the world’s biggest league, but to Martelinho, he is not recognizably different from the teenager he coached in the youth teams of a struggling Portuguese club a decade ago.

“The way he is now is the way he always was,” Martelinho said, casting his mind back to the two years he spent working with Fernandes in the academy at Boavista. “He always played with a lot of ambition, always on the front foot, never playing a pass backward, always trying to get into the penalty area. He needed more experience, but everything you see now was there then.”

Such is the biography of most of Fernandes’ peers among the world’s finest players, of course. The transcendent gifts, obvious to all, that win a place on football’s fast track to greatness. The place at one of the world’s foremost talent factories. A season or two in the first team and then the vindication of a lucrative, headline-grabbing move to England or Spain.

But while Fernandes’ starting point and destination fit that pattern, there is no straight line that can be drawn between the Fernandes that Martelinho knew and the one that he, and the rest of the world, sees today, the one that has blossomed — over the past year — into the driving force behind Manchester United’s resurgence.

Instead, he has taken a more circuitous path, one that involved a season in Italy’s second division and several more in the less glamorous corners of that country’s top league, years that would leave him essentially “anonymous” — to use Martelinho’s word — in his homeland until he was in his mid-20s.

Fernandes’ story could be seen as an uplifting tale of delayed gratification, hard work paying off, perseverance and dedication. Or it could be interpreted as a cautionary tale of a deep-rooted inefficiency in how football narrows its search for talent, a reminder that the margins between success and failure are fine, and that destiny can sometimes hinge on something as simple as a bus.

A Calculated Gamble

As the chief scout for Novara — an Italian football team based in a small town west of Milan and, that season, struggling at the foot of Serie A — Cristiano Giaretta was used to unsolicited calls from agents offering players that might be of interest.

When a Portuguese agent named Miguel Pinho got in touch with Giaretta in 2012 to recommend a teenage midfielder at Boavista, he might easily have disregarded it. His job involved tracking hundreds of players across much of Europe. He had never heard of Pinho, and he had never heard of Bruno Fernandes.

Nor, really, should he have. Although Boavista is traditionally the second team in Portugal’s second city, Porto, financial turmoil had, at the time, left it struggling in the third division. Its youth system had a good reputation, but by common consensus the cream of the country’s endless supply of young football talent was corralled in the academies of its big three clubs: Benfica, Sporting and FC Porto.

Fernandes had the chance to sign for at least one of them. Born in Maia, not far from Porto, he had been spotted by both Porto and Boavista while playing in a youth tournament. Both offered him a place in their academy. He chose Boavista, apparently, because it volunteered to send a minibus to take him to training, and neither of his parents could drive.

It is a version of the story that his former coach Martelinho, for one, disputes. “I think he believed he could get into the first team more easily at Boavista,” he said. “I made the same choice when I was a player, and for the same reason. It is a smaller club, so it is easier to play.”

Whatever the reason, it may have been the decision that would define Fernandes’ path. Porto’s youth games attract scouts from across Europe, scouring the grass for Portugal’s next great prospect. Boavista’s do not.

Had he signed with Porto, Fernandes might have followed the more familiar route to fame and fortune. He might at least have won the attention of the selectors for Portugal’s various age-group teams, another shop window for the next generation of young talent.

At Boavista, he was effectively in the shadows. “He was never called up for the national teams,” Martelinho said. “I don’t know why, though there were lots of talented players in his generation.” The vast majority of them, of course, came with the added luster of playing for one of Portugal’s established giants.

It was that oversight that gave Giaretta an opening and took Fernandes down a different route. On the phone, Pinho seemed a “serious” sort of person, Giaretta said, so he did not dismiss the idea as nothing more than an agent’s pitch. He traveled to the north of Portugal to watch the 17-year-old Fernandes in an academy game.

“My first impression was good, but not exceptional,” Giaretta said. “You could see the technical quality. His decision-making was better than average. He was light on his feet. But he wasn’t by far the best player on the pitch or anything.” Meeting Fernandes swayed him.

“You could see, straightaway, that you were in front of a grown-up,” he said. Giaretta decided to recommend that Novara move to sign the teenager.

Giaretta does not know whether Boavista did not hold out much hope for Fernandes’ development, or whether the club was in such a weakened financial state that it simply could not afford to say no, but Novara eventually paid less than $50,000 to sign him. “Every transfer is a risk,” he said. “But yes, this was a calculated gamble. Even the loss of a few thousand euros would have been a blow for the club.”

He had decided to spend it on Fernandes, an unheralded 17-year-old, one that nobody else seemed to value especially highly, from a club in Portugal’s third division, one that nobody seemed to bother to watch. Eight years later, Fernandes would cost Manchester United $97 million.

The Lessons of the Long Way Around

Francesco Guidolin was intrigued. As coach of Udinese, he was used to being presented with talented young players drawn from across the world, promising, polyglot teenagers plucked from relative obscurity by the club’s unrivaled network of scouts. It was rare, though, to find one of them picked up so close to home.

Fernandes’ stay at Novara had been brief: only a year, in fact, in which he won a place in the club’s first team, scored four times in 23 games, earned the nickname — the Maradona of Novara — before he was sold, at a vast profit, to Udinese in Serie A. Giaretta was central to that, too; he left Novara for Udinese in 2013 and recommended Fernandes to his new employer.

Guidolin had not seen much of Fernandes at Novara. When Fernandes arrived at Udinese, Guidolin was “curious” to see what this teenager with the unusual career path was like. “We went into training camp before the season,” Guidolin said. “Playing in Serie B and playing in Serie A are different things, but straightaway you could see that he was ready.”

Indeed, Guidolin felt that, perhaps, Fernandes’ early exposure to senior football — even at a lower level — had been in his interest. “A year in Serie B is a more complete experience than arriving straight from the youth system,” he said of players who move to Italy. “You could see that he had more certainty, took more responsibility, than most players his age.”

Looking at his trajectory since, it is possible to wonder if, perhaps, taking the long way around has worked in Fernandes’ favor. What stands out now to all of those who worked with him in his early days is his willingness to lead: to carry a team, even one as heavy as Manchester United, on his back.

Perhaps he learned that in those years he spent among the game’s lesser lights: one at Novara, three at Udinese, one at Sampdoria. By the summer of 2017, when he returned to Portugal — as the second-most-expensive signing in Sporting’s history — he had still not received a call-up to Portugal’s national team (although he had captained its under-21 side). His arrival was not heralded as a coup. “Most of the big teams had not seen much of him,” Martelinho said.

And yet, within just a few months, it was obvious what Portugal had been missing. “The Portuguese league is not as strong as England, Spain or Germany,” Martelinho said. “But it is maybe the fifth- or sixth-best league in Europe. It is not easy. Bruno made it look easy.”

His impact in England has been no less swift. It is not yet 12 full months since he arrived at Old Trafford, yet he has already been voted into one Premier League team of the season, and, with his team emerging as contenders to end a seven-year wait for a championship, he would rank among the leading candidates to win this campaign’s player of the year award.

And yet if his rise seems rapid, it is anything but. Fernandes has had to wait for this moment. Not through any fault of his own, but through a flaw in football’s structure, through its inability to look for talent in unexpected places. This was the player he always was and always could be. It just took the game a while to notice, and all because he needed to take a bus, all those years ago.

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