Mario Fernandes: The Brazilian living his World Cup dream with Russia
Brazilians perceive the FIFA World Cup as a birthright. Every four years, the Selecao embark on the competition among the huge favourites. Most youngsters would do anything to play a part. Not Mario Fernandes, however. The defender is realising that dream elsewhere.
The ongoing World Cup has been an unforgettable ride for the home nation. Even Russia's most optimistic supporters wouldn't have forecasted such. Never mind president Vladimir Putin. Not to mention the old witch Baba Yaga from Russian folklore. Stanislav Cherchesov and his men are defying the odds.
Despite their lowest ranking and miserable run of form beforehand, the Sbornaya sit only two games away from a historic final. Victory over Croatia on Saturday will take them a significant step closer. The last time that happened was in 1966 when the Soviet Union still existed.
Every Russian currently has a big grin. The entire nation is joyous. They are not used to such. It is suspicious. Car horns blare while girls in traditional dress dance with strangers on the street. Part of Russia's history makers is Brazilian-born Mario Fernandes.
The 27-year-old has started all four games for Cherchesov's team. If group qualification hadn't already been secured before the Uruguay clash, he would have played every minute. Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev have received most plaudits, yet Fernandes has had equal influence. He even chipped in with an assist during the 3-1 victory over Egypt.
Fernandes' journey began in 2012, joining CSKA Moscow from Gremio. Not a popular career path for his countrymen, he was on a personal mission. The right-back wanted to prove his capability outside Brazil. Despite believed interest from Real Madrid, he opted for the Russian capital.
Before the switch, Fernandes had struggled with nightlife. He missed his first national team invite due to a hangover. It caused criticism from family and media alike. However, sufficient talent was embedded in him. He was named Serie A's best right-back. Elegant, technically gifted and tactically astute, he was branded the next Cafu.
Not only did Russia make Fernandes a better player, but also a much-reformed man. He stopped his exuberant lifestyle. On the pitch, his speed, tackling ability and eagerness to attack surged even further. Brazil summoned him again in 2015. He made no mistake this time, featuring in the 4-0 victory over Japan, with Neymar scoring all four goals.
After securing a Russian passport one year later, Fernandes turned attention to Sbornaya. Although he didn't feature in the European Championship or Confederations Cup, his opportunity arrived in a friendly against South Korea in October.
Fernandes was branded a traitor in Brazil. He made the correct decision for himself, though. His brother, Jo Fernandes, agrees.
Russia changed his (Mario) life. 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.
Destination after the World Cup?
Since moving to Russia, Fernandes' reputation continues to rise. It can only go higher once the World Cup concludes. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Valencia appear front-runners for his services. But that could change if Russia's improbable run takes them to the final.