Bruno Fernandes Was an Icon at Sporting, Now He Takes His Talents to Manchester

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IFebruary 4, 2020

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 01:  Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on February 01, 2020 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Bruno Fernandes didn't see the answer coming. 

The dynamic midfielder was acting as a reporter for Sporting CP's official TV channel following their Portuguese Cup title win over bitter rivals Porto last season when he approached Macedonian right-back Stefan Ristovski for an interview inside the team's coach.

They had left the Jamor stadium in Oeiras, on the outskirts of Lisbon, and were heading to their home ground of Alvalade to celebrate the triumph with 30,000 fans. 

Fernandes was relaxed and spontaneous on air. He didn't know, however, what to ask Ristovski, so he deliberately improvised.

"Say whatever you want, whatever comes from your soul," Fernandes told his colleague, whom he described as "the red card man" during the broadcast.

"First of all, you should do us a favor and stay at the club for next season, otherwise, we're all f--ked," Ristovski answered, leaving Fernandes in hysterics. At the time Fernandes was already being linked to a host of clubs.

B24 @B24PT

Ristovski pede para Bruno Fernandes ficar no Sporting: “Estamos f******!” 🤣 https://t.co/DT3rBNlxV0

Ristovski, one of his best pals in the dressing room, may have been joking, but he had a point. 

Fernandes had finished that 2018-19 campaign with outrageous numbers: 32 goals and 18 assists, surpassing Frank Lampard's record of 27 in 2009-10 with Chelsea, which had been the most prolific goalscoring season by a midfielder in Europe. Last season, he was the complete package.

In a side that wasn't exactly blessed with great collective talent, Fernandes still managed to make it tick.

Unsurprisingly, he was praised by team-mates week in, week out. "Better than [Zinedine] Zidane," striker Luiz Phellype wrote on social media.

Through the whole summer, despite the widespread belief and numerous rumours that his departure from Alvalade was imminent, he received just one firm offer. That came from Tottenham Hotspur and was eventually turned down by Sporting.

"For various reasons, I thought it was a good moment to leave," Fernandes told Record afterward.

Ultimately, to Ristovski's relief, he didn't.

At the time, even Cristiano Ronaldo told Portuguese broadcaster TVI he struggled to "understand why [Fernandes] doesn't leave" Sporting. 

In his place, others might have defied the club, but the 25-year-old's attitude remained the same. On the pitch, he never slowed down, maintaining the form that had impressed in his first two years with Sporting.

Overall, in 28 games for Sporting this season, he chipped in with 15 goals and 14 assists, leading Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to fly to Lisbon to watch him in the 2-1 loss to Porto in early January. Although Fernandes didn't perform particularly well that afternoon, he still convinced Solskjaer to make the Portugal international his marquee winter signing.

At an initial fee of €55 million, which can rise to €80 million with add-ons, he will now have to live up to his price tag at Old Trafford.

On Saturday, he was thrown straight into the starting XI against Wolverhampton Wanderers and did enough to earn Manchester United's man of the match award, despite having had only one training session with his new team-mates in the run-up to the game. 

Manchester United @ManUtd

A lively #MUFC debut from @B_Fernandes8 👏 https://t.co/ZM8EtdvIY3

A promising start, but whether he will be worth his chunky transfer fee remains to be seen. 

Rewind to 2018, though, and Fernandes could have been the bargain of the transfer window.

For nearly a month, the midfielder was free to sign with any club after terminating his contract with Sporting—he was one of the nine athletes who decided to leave the Lisbon giants after the attacks on players and staff by a group of 50 masked men at Alcochete training ground.

In the meantime, he received inquiries from England and Spain but ended up being persuaded to return to Alvalade.

Portugal legend Paulo Futre played a big part in the talks that brought Fernandes and a couple of other players back; Futre assisted then-club president Sousa Cintra during the negotiations.

Sporting's Brazilian forward Luiz Phellype (R) celebrates his goal with Sporting Lisbon's Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes during the UEFA Europa League Group D football match between Sporting CP and PSV Eindhoven at the Jose Alvalade stadium in Lisb

"Bruno's form after going through all that was no surprise to me—he had already been the best league player in his first season. Perhaps what strikes me most is his confidence to score from wherever he wants. It's out of this world. He's a midfielder for God's sake," Futre told Bleacher Report.

"He was the most outstanding name in our league...he could play anywhere he wants."

With the departures of Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Gelson Martins to Wolves, Real Betis and Atletico Madrid, respectively, in 2018, Sporting became all the more reliant on their star man.https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/J11Lq_xCDIrnZ_leKOMKjoP1h_RvzLZ7mv90vYCe2pB6MjrqdwB_jswvByVl-4dIHgDtsox1PSNZHivqkUbdOJkJwJHmtNvADup5Lgc4JfrqzJYHbqbrjYJL5J-HJCQWm5tMzqc5

Fernandes' stats don't even begin to illustrate the impact he had during his spell.

Not only did the Portuguese maestro raise his game and assume a more predominant role on the team, but he also developed as the main leader inside the dressing room. His non-stop work ethic and passion made fans believe in a brighter future.

It has been nearly 20 years since Sporting last won the league title, but before every game, their supporters sing their hearts out to their own version of Frank Sinatra's famous hit "My Way" and dream about a side that leaves everything on the pitch in the same way Fernandes did.

A long-shot specialist, intelligent with the ball and a tireless midfielder who played 137 out of a possible 144 matches, Fernandes was widely regarded as Sporting's most talented and beloved player since Bulgarian star Krasimir Balakov wore the green and white in the 1990s. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Figo can find a place in the discussion.

And Balakov, a key member of the Bulgaria team that reached the 1994 World Cup, left the club nearly 25 years ago, so it had been a long wait for the fans to have such an influential player.

"They are not exactly the same kind of player," Andre Cruz, a former Sporting centre-back, explains.

"Balakov was a left-footed midfielder, while Bruno is a right-footed one, moving into different spaces on the field. But they have something in common: They never lose sight of the goal and always push the team forward."

A lot has changed for Fernandes since joining Sporting from Sampdoria in the summer of 2017.

Before then, he was barely known among his compatriots, with only hardcore fans noticing him during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and through his captaincy of Portugal's under-21 side. He's now a household name.

Luis Vieira/Associated Press

Some people are even convinced United have got a bargain. When Flamengo coach Jorge Jesus was in charge of Sporting, he left people in no doubt about how much he rated the midfielder. 

"He cost €8 million [when we bought him from Sampdoria]; it was a lot of money for the club , but now I wouldn't sell him even if you added a zero to that number. He's Sporting's jackpot, sportily and financially speaking," he told A Bola last year when the transfer rumours about Fernandes really started to heat up.

"He has everything to reach the highest possible level."

Nine years ago, when he was still a teenager in Boavista's youth team, Fernandes was sold for a reported fee of only €40,000 as he decided to take a major step and migrate to Italian lower-league side Novara.

It proved to be a courageous career change that paid off.

After netting four goals and providing two assists in 21 matches, he was already being labelled "Novara's Maradona" and attracting interest from bigger sides. A few months later, Udinese snapped him up for €2.5 million.

Martelinho, who witnessed Fernandes' first steps in the professional game as one of his coaches at Boavista,  is not surprised at Fernandes sharp climb in the game, 

"Bruno is the sort of player any coach would like to have in their team. Obviously, scoring over 30 goals in a season is a remarkable thing, but his potential is even bigger," Martelinho says.

"I usually say that Bruno can play in a suit and also wearing a cheap romper. With him, you get two players in one.

"He's a fierce competitor, provides work rate and commitment, tirelessly tracks back to stop attacks if he needs to. And at the same time, he's wonderfully creative and brings magic to the game. How can you not admire a player like him? He fights for the ball, tackles, drives the team forward, assists and score goals. He's complete."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 01: Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United in action during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on February 01, 2020 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Mas
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Born in Maia on the surroundings of Porto, Fernandes has tried to stay grounded off the pitch and is still in touch and loyal to his friends from local school Gueifaes.

After rescinding his contract with Sporting in the summer of 2018, he relied on some of them to maintain his form and fitness.

"When he was a child, Bruno just thought about playing football. At that age, he already stood out—you could see he was above par compared to others," recalls Vitor Maia, a reporter for Mais Futebol who watched him growing up.

"Besides running after a ball in the break between classes, he was often playing in a public field, too. It didn't matter if it was against older or younger people; he just wanted to play.

"A few years ago, I was hanging out with some of his school buddies at a birthday dinner. That night, the TV was showing a Napoli-Udinese match. Udinese were losing, but then Bruno equalised.

"I remember his pals whispering to each other, 'A short time ago, he was still playing with us at school; now he's scoring goals against [Pepe] Reina.'

"His decision to do that pre-season training on his own shows what he's like as a footballer and as a person. He's still humble, available to those who were with him before reaching the top. Deep down, he hasn't forgotten where he came from, is still close to his longtime friends and in love with this game."

And now finally the soap opera over his future has come to an end. The Portuguese sensation leaves his home country again, but this time in much different circumstances than his low-key move to Italy as an unheralded teenager.

"When he first moved abroad, he was barely known, even in his own country. That's how far he has come,"  Martelinho says.

"But he won't stop at this point. He can't stop at this point."


Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves