Meet Mario Fernandes, the Star Russia Defender Who Doesn't Speak Russian

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IJune 30, 2018

Russia's Mario Fernandes celebrates after the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia which opens the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Russia had just finished a training session days before its 2018 World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia. The local press was gathered at the team's facility at Novogorsk Training Center outside Moscow. Mario Fernandes stood in the middle of a scrum, taking question after question in Russian, not understanding a word.

The 27-year-old Brazil-born defender has lived in Russia since 2012 and became a citizen in 2016. He plays for CSKA Moscow and now represents the country as part of the Russian national team, but when asked by one reporter to say a few words in Russian, he offered only two: "spasiba" (thank you) and "pozhalusta" (you're welcome). And even for that, he needed a reporter from local outlet Championat to translate the question to Portuguese.

"He's a very calm man but still can't do an interview in Russian on his own after six years living here," Grigory Telingater told Bleacher Report, laughing. "So I had to be the translator guy."

He's used to it. "During training, it's possible to hear the players saying bad words in Portuguese," Telingater added. "It's amusing. A lot of Brazilians play in Russia and their influence is massive."

Enough so that Russia's coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, is more than willing to look past any communication issues. He told reporters in March, "Mario is like a dog. He understands everything [we ask him to do] but can't answer back. The most important is that he does his work well."

And that he has, playing a key role in the host nation's fast start to the World Cup. His solid defensive play and rampaging runs forward helped Russia win 5-0 over Saudia Arabia and 3-1 over Egypt to earn its spot in the knockout stage.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 19:  Mohamed Salah of Egypt controls the ball under pressure of Mario Fernandes of Russia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group A match between Russia and Egypt at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 19, 2018 in Saint Pe
Francois Nel/Getty Images

As notable as his performance was against Egypt—he registered an assist on Denis Cheryshev's goal that put Russia up 2-0—how wildly he celebrated after the ball hit the back of the net has instead become a talking point.

Watching on in the stands, smiling along with Fernandes, was Vladimir Putin, whose presidential decree helped Fernandes become a Russian citizen.

Back in his native Brazil, though, the reaction hasn't been as kind. Fernandes is still called a deserter and a traitor. But he doesn't care. He's happy to now be Putin's man.

It's important to understand this about Fernandes' bond with his new homeland: He didn't choose to gain citizenship and play internationally for Russia because he had no chance to play for Brazil.

Indeed, some in Brazil argue Fernandes compares favorably to Manchester City's Danilo and Corinthians' Fagnerthe two right-backs in the Brazil setupand would have been a featured player on the national team if he hadn't switched nationalities.

So why did he?

Mario's brother Jo Fernandes, a former footballer who retired prematurely at the age of 26 due to injuries, has no doubt about the reason.

"Russia changed his life," Jo explained to Bleacher Report.

"I talk to him every day. He says he's very happy and that moving to Russia was his best-ever decision. The Russian people treat him very well. They opened the doors for him and allowed him to become one of them. He always tells me he's found his place in the world."

One of Brazil's most influential agents, Jorge Machado, has been working with Fernandes for over a decade. He raises another point: "He's been there for six years and won five titles at CSKA. The Russians absolutely love him, and he doesn't have the media bothering him [as he would in Brazil]."

He's also distanced himself from the alcohol and bad company that once threatened his career back in Brazil. Jo says, "Sincerely, we never expected him to get this far and play for Russia, but what can I say? His hard work paid off. He trains on his own, does functional workouts at home, behaves as a professional. He's stopped drinking."

Not even his close friends can convince him to go out at night nowadays, unless it is for a quiet bite at Shake Shack or Chef steakhouse—two Fernandes favourite haunts in the Moscow area.

"He's matured," Jo says. "He's now a different person."

CSKA Moscow's Brazilian defender Mario Fernandes takes part in a press conference at the CSKA Arena in Moscow on November 21, 2016 on the eve of the UEFA Champions League football match between PFC CSKA Moscow and Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
 / AFP / Yuri KADOBN

Different, that is, than the person he was in the early-morning hours of September 26, 2011, when he made a decision that could have derailed his career.

A promising player, technically gifted and tactically brilliant, Fernandes was a highly rated teenager with Gremio and had been linked to several European heavyweights, including Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Juventus. Brazil's national-team coach at the time, Mano Menezes, was also an admirer and handed him a call-up for a friendly against Argentina.

On the night before reporting to the national team's camp, Fernandes had scored the opening goal in a 2-1 away win for Gremio over Avai in Florianopolis.

He returned to Gremio's home city of Porto Alegre after the game, but instead of heading straight to bed, he went partying in a nightclub in the downtown area. He arrived there at 2 a.m. and reportedly greeted his pals with an enigmatic proclamation.

"You're going to hear about me tomorrow," he told them, according to Globo Esporte.

And indeed they did. He missed the flight he was supposed to take to Belem at 5:30 a.m. His representatives booked a new one in the afternoon, but he didn't show up for it either.

An official statement was released later that day declaring that Fernandes had turned down the invitation: "The player is not in the right psychological condition to dedicate himself entirely to the national team."

He was not punished by Gremio nor criticised by many of the team's fans. In fact, the opposite happened. He emerged as a hero for a small group from the south of Brazil with separatist desires after snubbing the call-up. An enormous banner with his face on it was displayed at Gremio's Estadio Olimpico Monumental.

"Few people would have the guts to say no to the Selecao (Brazil's nickname for the national team)," Dino Camargo, one of the defender's first coaches, told B/R. "He has always had a strong personality. It doesn't matter for him if it's a World Cup final, a Sao Paulo State Championship match or a [friendly], he doesn't let the pressure affect him."

Later that season, he was named the best right-back in Brazil's Serie A and convinced CSKA Moscow to pay €15 million for him.

Fernandes was never treated the same way at home after the nightclub episode. People laughed at him and called him "Doril" in the streets—poking fun at his disappearance with a reference a popular headache drug in Brazil with the catchphrase: "tomou Doril, a dor sumiu" (take Doril, the pain disappears).

It was not the first time he had vanished into thin air either.

He had already been in the news for disappearing mysteriously in 2009, a week after moving to Gremio from Sao Caetano, his first club. He went missing for five days and led many, including the police, to believe he had been kidnapped.

He was found starving and with no money in Jundiai, 723 miles away from Porto Alegre. He had decided not to play football anymore. According to Machado, frustrated after paying 1 million Brazilian real (approximately $250,000) for his signing, he was a hopeless case.

It was his father, Mario Persio Fernandes, better know as Bague, who got his son's career back on track.

Bague told Brazilian football magazine Placar about the serious chat he had with his son.

"Do you know why you're not going back [to Gremio]?" Bague asked him. "Because you're a big wuss. You're a coward."

Fernandes and his dad did not speak to each other for a long time after that heated conversation, but both of them have it to thank for Mario's progress. The pep talk worked, and Fernandes returned to Gremio to resume his career two months after disappearing.

Fernandes plays for Brazil in a friendly against Japan.
Fernandes plays for Brazil in a friendly against Japan.Kaz Photography/Getty Images

Shy and reserved, Fernandes tends to avoid the media as much as he can and not deal with questions about his past.

He couldn't run away from them, though, and in the mixed zone after the 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia, he talked about his new life in Russia. "I became more professional," he told reporters. "If you ask around, everyone will tell you how professional I am, how hard I work, that I do the right things. When we are younger—and I am still young—we do things we regret. I learned from them.

"[My problem] was the nightlife. Everybody knew I partied a lot. I drank a lot when I played in Porto Alegre, in Brazil, so I obviously regret it. I don't do it anymore. You can ask whoever you want. I don't even know the Russian nightlife."

The lifestyle change has suited him.

"He's probably the highest-valued player in the Russian squad," Telingater says. "Everybody loves him; he's not a troublemaker, like some of the Russians. He is always smiling, very kind, doesn't get involved in controversies."

Putin, Cherchesov and millions of Russian fans certainly appreciate how Fernandes has changed and acclimated to Russia. Even if he hasn't in the most basic way.

"No one gets why he doesn't do Russian classes. He's not even able to say a couple of words in Russian," says Julia Yakovleva, a reporter for local outlet Sport Express.

"He could at least try to learn the anthem. But no. He says it's difficult."

Or maybe it's just easier for him to represent the country in other ways.