Mario Fernandes: Putin’s Samba man in Moscow

Words by Feargal Brennan Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 11, 2018

The complexities and nuances of footballer allegiances have added an extra layer to international football in the past two decades. Clichés and stereotypes used in the 90’s for players that had opted against the perceived ‘logical’ choice of national side, have been replaced with faceted back stories and personal missions of repayment.

Alongside this, has been, at times, the controversial subject of naturalisation. The subject has become more en vogue, as is always the case, with more high profile examples in successful sides. A prime example of this being Diego Costa opting for Spain, after growing frustrated with Brazil.

Despite playing two friendlies for Brazil in 2013, Costa made clear his wish to play for Spain – and after receiving Spanish nationality later that year, his request was granted. Brazil reacted furiously towards both Costa and the Spanish footballing authorities, who in response pled their case as simply granting a player’s wishes and not breaking any FIFA rules.

The Costa situation opened up opportunities for minds to be changed, and players to utilise FIFA rulings to their advantage. Likewise, respective FA’s have also been extremely flexible when a change of allegiance has benefited them.

Ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer, another curious case of nationality switch involving Brazil has occurred, with defender Mario Fernandes choosing to represent the host nation.

However, unlike the Costa situation, his South American compatriot’s reasons for opting against the Selecao come for different reasons. As a highly rated teenager at Gremio, he was earmarked as future Brazilian international, comfortable at both centre back and right back, however the Porto Alegre side were unable to hold on to him as he pushed for a move to Europe.

Fernandes went through the usual transfer gossip merry-go-round of promising South American youngsters, linked with European heavyweights, before often settling for a middleweight. A bid of €15 million from CSKA Moscow was enough to secure his services, and a move to Russia was sealed ahead of the 2012-13 season.

His time in Russia has been successful, winning three Russian league titles and establishing himself as a key part of the side under both Leonid Slutsky and Viktor Goncharenko.

With success for his club, Fernandes was offered a ‘second chance’ at international level, after previously turning down a call up for Brazil in 2011.

Whilst still at Gremio, he was roundly criticised by both the Brazilian footballing authorities, and fans, both of whom were bemused and angry at the thought of a young player rejecting the chance to pull on the famous yellow jersey.

He responded to that criticism with admirable maturity, expanding on the token press release of personal reasons, to detail how an unconducive lifestyle in Brazil was harming his chances of continuing as a professional, with alcohol and a lack of application undermining him. The move to Russia turned that around, an omission made by the player on a number of occasions, and he felt indebted to the country for that.

But when a potential for a return into the Brazil fold came in 2014, he took it, playing a friendly against Japan, whilst still being open about his growing connection to Russia.

With Brazil preparing for the 2016 Copa America, Fernandes found himself back out of favour, and his decision was eventually made. The Russian FA had been a constant in the background of the situation, with well reported stories of CSKA’s Russian contingent nudging the full back in their direction.

Fernandes made his choice in late 2014, however he had to wait until he reached the obligatory five year mark to be granted both Russian citizenship and eligibility for the national team.

The interesting aspect of this example of naturalisation is that Fernandes’ case goes right to the top in Russia, with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and even President Vladimir Putin playing a role.

Non-Russian born players playing for the national side is a relatively new occurrence, with Ukranian born Roman Neustadter and Brazilian Guilherme Marinato, with both selected for their new country at Euro 2016. However, the case of Fernandes opens up an additional avenue into Russian willingness to select naturalised internationals.

Following their embarrassing showing on the pitch in France, and the ultra-negative reception their supporters generated off it, the desire for a quick change became rapidly apparent.

As World Cup hosts, the reality of presenting themselves in a specific way was laid clear from everyone within the Russian FA, right up to the Government.

This concerted effort was seen across Russian organisations during the Confederations Cup in 2017, with figures from sport, politics and security all eager to demonstrate a ‘nothing to see here’ image.

With that ‘dealt with’ from a Russian perspective, then came the issue of reversing the poor showing at the European Championships. Not an easy task, given an ageing squad and a lack of young Russian talent on the horizon, so flexibility and pragmatism have been the order of the day.

Fernandes’ paperwork was finalised in April 2017, with media reports in Russia claiming that Putin personally gave the nod to his passport – odd as it sounds, it is not unlikely given the Russian leader’s penchant for becoming involved in internal affairs.

He has been selected and will start in defence for Russia at the World Cup, however his relationship with the fan base remains unclear.

The Russian league has some of the strictest restrictions for non-native players within UEFA, with supporter groups from across the country making no secret of their desire to see Russian players populate the league. Nationalism and machismo are traits that are never far from the surface of Russian sporting performance, however with Fernandes, exceptions are slowly being made.

Within the CSKA fans he is well liked, and his contribution valued, however there is constant disquiet about his low level of spoken Russian, and that has created further criticism.

With the eyes of the world on the country, not just as the host, but also on their performance on the pitch, this almost intrinsically self-confident nation, that demands the best from its sporting representatives, is having to make concessions.

Fernandes has spoken with clarity and honesty about his pride and willingness to represent Russia to the very best of his ability, but the internal spotlight will burn bright on him this summer, as a marriage of convenience that could easily hit choppy waters with a group stage exit.

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