Fernando: A star so bright
If Paul The Octopus -- or, more likely, a friend or relative of his -- makes a reappearance into public view for some World Cup forecasts, it will be the only eight-legged involvement in this summer's tournament in Brazil. More's the pity. Many, including Portugal coach Paulo Bento, had hoped Fernando Francisco Reges would be gracing Brazilian pitches this summer, but ultimately, it wasn't to be for the man nicknamed "O Polvo" (The Octopus).
This World Cup should have been a pinnacle for Fernando, as he is simply known. The absence of FC Porto's stalwart defensive midfielder from the international stage has long been the source of considerable bemusement at the Estadio do Dragao. How many better holding midfielders than Fernando could Brazil really have? It was clearly a point of view shared by the player himself, who told Globo in January 2013 that "Brazil is my dream. I'm certain that one day I'm going to wear the amarelinha" (yellow shirt).
Fernando also expressed in that interview the belief that the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari to the Brazil job would open the door for him. "He's already passed through Europe, and he was in Portugal for a long time," the midfielder said. "Because I've been here for such a long time, there are people in Brazil who think that I'm Portuguese. But I'm not."
That too was the ruling of FIFA's governing body, which in May decided that because Fernando had played in official competition for Brazil (Under-20 World Cup qualifying in 2007), he was ineligible to switch to Portugal, despite collecting a Portuguese passport in late 2013.
Something has changed for Fernando since that Globo interview: partly, one suspects, the prospect of playing in the World Cup in Brazil ebbing away, but also the faith of Bento. The Portugal coach had always been cautiously supportive of the idea of taking Fernando on board. Until the player's citizenship was finalised, it "wasn't a possibility", Bento pointed out, but he made it clear that he was an admirer. Given the successes of previously naturalised Brazilian-born Porto players Deco and Pepe, it was an enticing prospect.
Bento believed he had his man before March's friendly with Cameroon. He intended to pick Fernando but was forced to withdraw him from his planned squad because of what appeared at the time to be just red tape. With Sporting's William Carvalho (extensively scouted by Manchester United) also emerging and making a full debut against the Indomitable Lions, Fernando's absence is not felt perhaps as keenly as it might be. There's no use crying over spilt milk, and all that.
Yet for all William's poise and maturity -- something already demonstrated in his debut as substitute in the playoff with Sweden and something that will again be apparent if he gets involved in Brazil -- there is no doubt that Fernando would have been a considerable asset. For a 26-year-old, his experience is quite breathtaking. The winner of 12 major trophies in his six seasons at the Dragao, he has played 57 matches in European competition.
Fernando has evolved too. A straight-up, steadfast blocker when he first became a Porto first-team regular (after a year of acclimating to Europe, on loan at the now-defunct Estrela da Amadora), he was a player who benefitted from Andre Villas-Boas' grand ideas as much as Hulk or Joao Moutinho.
Villas-Boas made Fernando see that he could be more of an adventurous, well-rounded player. Before AVB, he rarely ventured past the centre circle. As Porto soared in a remarkable 2010-11 season -- winning a treble of league, cup and Europa League -- Fernando started to bring the ball out of his own half, to press further up the pitch and to make the play. It was the period in which he began to develop into the modern, more versatile defensive midfielder that all of Europe's top clubs desire today.
So it's not too much of a leap to suggest that without AVB, Fernando would not be on the brink of sealing his long-mooted move to Manchester City. His acquisition (which will cost City, thanks to Fernando's contract extension earlier this year, a "thank you" of sorts to Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa) is a smart one by Manuel Pellegrini, who knows he can get more out of his key midfielders, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, by providing some protection behind them
“A straight-up, steadfast blocker when he first became a Porto regular, Fernando benefitted from Andre Villas-Boas' grand ideas. ”
Javi Garcia's improved form was useful in the closing part of last season and backed this point of view, but Fernando is simply on a different level to the former Benfica midfielder. His development under Villas-Boas made him so, and his ability to bring the ball out will be crucial in maintaining City's attacking rhythm.
It's just a shame that City fans won't get a taste during the World Cup. They'd have quickly worked out why he's called O Polvo, for a start. No matter how unpromising the angle for a tackle or interception, those telescopic legs always seem to get there. Given the way that City play, that can only be an asset. Pellegrini will be happy to see him rest those legs this summer, even if Fernando himself might reflect on what might have been.