Six years ago, then-Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho made Mario Fernandes his top target ahead of the January 2012 transfer window. Mourinho personally contacted the young Brazilian, who played for Gremio, but Madrid president Florentino Perez had other ideas. He didn’t want to pay €15 million for a largely unknown player and wanted to blood a homegrown right-back who had made huge progress on the reserve team — Dani Carvajal.
By the time Mourinho managed to convince the board that the Fernandes deal was needed, the defender had already agreed a contract with CSKA Moscow and didn’t want to break his word. In retrospect, Perez was correct about Carvajal, who was sold to Bayer Leverkusen in 2012 but brought back a year later to become one of the best players in the world at his position.
But, in Russia, Fernandes proved to be a huge success too. And on Tuesday, the 27-year-old will get a chance to show Mourinho what he missed when he arrives at Old Trafford with CSKA needing to beat Manchester United heavily in order to progress to the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Fernandes has certainly come far. In 2011, he was a promising centre-back and dreamed of representing hosts Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. Yet in 2017 he is about to play at the World Cup for the hosts indeed — at right-back for Russia.
In his youth, Fernandes was tipped to play centrally. Elegant, technically gifted and tactically astute, he was branded as “the new Lucio.” The Selecao legend started his career at Gremio’s city rivals Internacional, and Mario was supposed to follow his footsteps. Juventus even tracked him before the Old Lady signed Lucio himself.
An injury crisis at Gremio forced Fernandes to play at right-back and in June 2011 he said: “I enjoyed playing on the flank but hope to return to my natural position from now on.”
CSKA never needed him in the centre, however. With Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins calling the shots in the middle, Fernandes was always going to play right-back in Moscow.
Leonid Slutsky used his speed, tackling abilities and readiness to join attacks at every opportunity and the Brazilian fast became the best player in his position in the Russian Premier League. He helped CSKA to win the championship title in his first season, but suffered a severe knee injury in the dying moments of the last match and missed out on the celebrations.
Fernandes was present when Slutsky’s men won it again in 2014 and 2016, though, and his part in all those achievements simply cannot be overstated.
Initially, fans were sceptical about his hefty price tag. CSKA president Yevgeni Giner is usually very careful with money, and the club record fee of €15m — the sum Perez refused to pay at Real Madrid — seemed too high. In retrospect, it was a bargain. Very few players were as consistently excellent for CSKA and Fernandes proved to be loyal too. So, as time went by, the Russian FA began to plan ahead for the biggest sporting event in the summer of 2018.
Fernandes was still eligible to play for Russia because Brazil were never really interested, mainly due to a bizarre incident in 2011. Mano Menezes, the national team coach at the time, called up the defender ahead of the friendly against Argentina, only to get refused for “personal reasons and stress.” Fernandes’ agent issued an official statement, stating: “The player was not in the right psychological condition to dedicate himself to the national team. He asks his decision be respected by the fans and the press.”
It was not respected, of course, and the player was heavily criticised. Saying no to the Selecao is almost unheard of in Brazil, and therefore Fernandes was immediately branded unreliable and undisciplined. The young defender later admitted his lifestyle was unsuitable for that of a sportsman and revealed: “I spent a lot of time at night clubs, was fond of alcohol and missed training sessions.”
It was the move to Moscow that helped him to get on track. The Brazilian stopped drinking in Russia, and is now a true role model. As a result, Dunga called him up for Brazil again in September 2014, after the World Cup, but his solitary cap in a friendly against Japan only serves as a reminder of what could have been. Russia were far more persistent, and with the next World Cup on the horizon, Fernandes’ knew his chances of playing at the event were much better in Eastern Europe.
The switch wasn’t easy, and he had to wait until 2017 to complete five years in the Russian league and get clearance from FIFA, but now the road is clear. The Brazilian made his debut for Russia in October, and has taken part in three fixtures so far, including the 1-0 defeat against Argentina last month.
Not all the Russian fans are happy that the national team uses foreigners, and Fernandes has beencriticised for failing to learn and speak the language — unlike Lokomotiv Moscow’s Brazilian goalkeeper Guilherme, who is fluent in Russian and was part of the Euro 2016 squad. And yet, few can argue that Fernandes is not up to the task professionally. He is by far the best option available to the coach Stanislav Cherchesov.
This year, Fernandes has been used in a new role for club and country. Both Cherchesov and CSKA coach Viktor Goncharenko, who replaced Slutsky a year ago, are fond of the 3-5-2 formation and use Fernandes as a wing-back, which suits his attack-minded mentality.
With CSKA needing a sensational result in Manchester, Fernandes could prove to be their most potent weapon. Mourinho certainly remembers him well and now has to find a way to stop him.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.