Sergio Marques disappears for a moment to find his phone and retrieve a text message from Bruno Fernandes.
So, when did he last hear from Man Utd’s new signing?
“Yesterday,” replies Marques triumphantly as he re-enters the lounge of his apartment brandishing the phone which displays a message in Portuguese from his former protege.
“Thanks for everything,” writes Fernandes. “I’m good. It’s going to be fine.”
I followed the Premier League since I was a kid. They showed the games here and of course I followed Man Utd more when Cristiano Ronaldo joined.
I'd love to reach Cristiano's level for United now that I'm a Man Utd player too."
—Bruno Fernandes grew up watching Man Utd and Premier League football
Marques was Fernandes’s first coach in football. They met when he was an eight-year-old joining FC Infesta, a club in Matosinhos, north west of Porto.
Marques, the Under-9 coach then, saw enough gift in Fernandes to offer him free one-to-one sessions every Tuesday night, honing the boy’s skills on a dirt pitch.
“From the beginning you could see he had a natural talent, but he always wanted the ball for himself,” says the 65-year-old, who would play Fernandes as a centre-back in the harder games and then allow him to dominate in midfield when the opposition weren’t as strong.
“He wasn’t very keen on passing, heading and defending. I took him to one side and said, ‘Bruno, you have the talent but you need to work on these areas. Is that something you want to do?’ He said yes and that’s when we started the one-to-one sessions.”
Fernandes came from a poor background in the industrial city of Maia. He lived with his parents, elder brother Rodrigo, and younger sister Sara in a modest first-floor apartment in Gueifaes, a district on the outskirts of town.
His father Jose worked in the Piu Belle textile factory and neither he nor the boy’s mother Virginia could drive, so Infesta’s club secretary would take Fernandes to the ramshackle stadium.
I have a lot of respect for Pep Guardiola, what he's won, what he did for football. But at that moment he didn't respect me and didn't deserve my respect.
Of course, what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch. It's now in the past and my respect for him remains."
—Fernandes became an instant Man Utd fan favourite when he shushed Pep Guardiola in the recent Manchester derby
When the big clubs beckoned two years later, he would have preferred to join his boyhood team Porto but Boavista’s offer of transport to and from training tipped the balance in their favour.
Fernandes has never let his slight frame hold him back. Shy off the pitch, he became increasingly aggressive on it. When he switched to Boavista’s B-team ADR Pasteleira, driving duties fell to his Under-15 coach Antonio Peres six nights a week—and so too did the task of taming the fiery youngster.
“He was like a wild horse,” says Peres. “He had long hair like a girl and he was a rebel.
He learned to play football in the street and his fight, his character, his language came from the streets.
There was a lot of competition for places and sometimes he would go over the top in training. He would fight with his teammates and I had to send him out of the session to cool off.
He told me many times he wanted to be a top player to get a better life because the family was poor. Everyone wants that, but only a few can get it.”
People compare me to Rui Costa because we are both Portuguese and play as attacking midfielders, but we are quite different. I have my own approach: For me the end goal is always to win, and to that end I work hard to score as much as I assist.
I want to surpass Costa in fact, it's not easy given the great career he's had, but it's my dream."
—Fernandes considers himself pragmatic although that does not stop him from applying his natural creativity
Fernandes was a bad loser but also a natural leader from an early age. Peres laughs as he recalls him being a ringleader when Pasteleira departed away games with a few more footballs than when they arrived, or the times when he caught the boys watching films instead of sleeping the night before a tournament.
Adult movies? “No, no, no, no… Well, maybe!”
Pasteleira’s cut of Fernandes’s move from Sporting to United will be roughly £170,000, significantly more than what they made off the success of two other old boys, Everton’s Andre Gomes and Benfica’s rising star Chiquinho.
“Bruno had difficulties but never gave up,” says Pasteleira’s academy co-ordinator Miguel Pedro.
“He will be a big help to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the players at Man Utd. I saw his first game against Wolves and he was like a boss on the pitch.
After one training session there, he was telling Aaron Wan-Bissaka what to do. Wan-Bissaka was probably thinking ‘who is this guy talking to me?’ but Bruno was doing that since 15.”
Bruno Fernandes has the qualities of Paul Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron, topped with speed and a big personality.
He's come in, given everyone a boost, and wants to conduct a game. I'm very excited to have him in the team."
—Ole Gunnar Solksjaer pushed hard to bring Fernandes to Old Trafford and could not be happier when the playmaker finally arrived
At Fernandes’s elementary school, Escola Basica 2/3 Gueifaes, his English teacher Cristina Almeida remembers a boy whose only dream was to be a footballer and one day play in the Premier League.
“He was a special one,” she says. “I can still see him running to the classroom, the football under his arm, sweating and panting and me having him wash his face before going to his place.
He had a hard time balancing his studies with training and matches, let alone homework. Sometimes he couldn’t do it so I would get angry and say, ‘Bruno, do you think you’re going to be another Cristiano Ronaldo? Do you? Forget the football, do your homework and study. That is your future, okay?’
He’d look down and nod in silence. Luckily for him and the rest of us, I was wrong!”
Fernandes moved to another school closer to Boavista at 15 where he met his future wife Ana Pinho. She remembers them kissing for the first time in front of a gum shop close to the school.
Her brother Miguel became his agent and it was on his recommendation that Italian club Novara decided to take a closer look.
Moving to Italy alone at 17 was an experience that shaped me.
I had to depend on myself most of the time and you become an adult. Football wise I learnt so much about tactics, it's simply their culture. When you play in Serie A you're ready to play anywhere tactically.”
—Fernandes spent five seasons in Italy, a leap of faith he took just before turning 18, which greatly enriched him both as a footballer and as a person
Novara’s sporting director Cristiano Giaretta despatched the head of his academy, Mauro Borghetti, to Portugal to watch Fernandes play for Boavista Under-17.
“At first glance he didn’t impress me,” recalls Borghetti. “He wasn’t above average and even the movement of his body didn’t show great athleticism.
But during the game, I realised that his play was full of personality. He had no fear of dribbling or shooting on goal.”
Novara agreed to pay Boavista a total of £33,500 in two instalments, and it says much about Fernandes’s character that he was prepared to leave home at the age of 17 and move to Italy.
Juventus and Fiorentina were also hovering, but the teenager saw a better prospect of first-team football in Serie B with Novara.
Fernandes scored a hat-trick in his first game for the Under-19 but had to wait several months for his senior debut. By then, money was tight because paperwork issues over his first professional contract meant that his basic wage of £1,260-a-month wasn’t paid until midway through the season.
People have the stereotype that players who are good on the ball are not good off the ball. I train myself to be good at both.
I focus a lot on my technique but also put in as much effort on the 'follow ups' after making a pass to a teammate or if I were to lose the ball. It's all about doing that little bit more."
—Fernandes's vision stands him out among attackers while his movement sets him apart from midfielders
“From June to February I had €50 that my mother gave me when I left Portugal,” Fernandes told Portuguese newspaper Record.
“Arriving in Novara, not knowing anyone, not talking the language, having no one who could translate what had to be done, it was very difficult.”
Fernandes’s parents and Ana visited him four times during his year at the club and he worked hard to settle in at Hotel Novarello, his home at Novara’s training complex in Piedmont.
Giaretta describes a fiercely dedicated teenager who was regularly first in and last out at training. Better still, he mastered Italian quickly by writing words on bits of paper stuck to everything in his apartment.
“On the chair, the fridge, the wardrobe, everywhere,” says Giaretta. “After one month, he was already able to speak Italian and this was really impressive to me.
He was different from the other guys. I’ve never known a player with so much desire to be the best. He wants to be someone. Not just one of the best, but the best. Playing for Man Utd is a way of doing that.”
I believe repetition is the key to achieving perfection.
Say you want to do the crossbar challenge. You try 10 times every day and miss every time. But each time you learn a little more about why you missed, what you missed. Just keep trying, keep learning, and it'll come."
—Fernandes may be entertaining on the pitch but his routine off it, not so much
There were up to 20 other young players staying with Fernandes at Novarello. They remember him sulking for two hours straight if he lost at table tennis or table football.
“He wouldn’t accept defeat in training matches either,” adds Borghetti.
“When he arrived in Novara, we hoped he would get into the first team. Then we were all his fans when he made his debut in Serie A. We saw him score in the Europa League and play in the World Cup with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Now he plays for one of the most important clubs in the world. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won the Ballon d’Or too!”
Fernandes’s natural talent continued to blossom at Novara: the dribbling, the passing, the blockbuster long-range shots and set-piece deliveries.
It earned him a move to Udinese, getting a pay rise and a Smart car into the bargain.
First of all you should do us a favor and stay at Sporting for the next season.
Otherwise we are all fucked."
—Fernandes's Sporting teammate Stefan Ristovski jokingly plead for him to not leave the club during a public Q&A, a reflection of the captain's popularity
For the first few months, Fernandes’s pet labrador Simba kept him company but the dog was sent home to Maia when Ana joined Bruno permanently in Italy.
She was able to cook his favourite dish, the francesinha, a meat and cheese sandwich served with French fries that is popular in Porto and so stodgy that he is only allowed it once a month.
The couple married in 2015 while he was at Udinese and their daughter Matilde was born two years later.
By then, Fernandes had moved to Sampdoria, but he only spent one season there before returning to Portugal with Sporting Lisbon.
It was at Sporting that he truly came of age. Captain. Talisman. Star player. Fernandes finished 2018/19 with 32 goals and 18 assists, establishing himself as the most productive midfielder in Europe.
He lifted the Portuguese Cup and two Portuguese League Cups in Lisbon, but was at the centre of a controversy when a WhatsApp audio of him ranting about teammates was leaked.
Cristiano Ronaldo always said good things about Man Utd when we were on Portugal duties: about how he started believing in himself, how he started transforming into a world-class player at the Theatre of Dreams. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer told me later that Cristiano put in good words about me to him as well. I learnt a lot about the club from Luis Nani when he was at Sporting too. He even sent me a message saying he's delighted at my transfer.
Seeing how United mean so much to Cristiano and Nani certainly helped me make my decision."
—Fernandes's Man Utd move was also influenced by Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Nani, both United and Portugal legends
“Some players have no fight and don’t want to be here—they can fuck off,” Fernandes was heard saying. It was telling, however, that the rest of the squad continued to back him.
He was also caught on CCTV swearing at a security guard after lashing out with his right boot at a door when he was sent off on his return to Boavista in September, the wild horse still packing a kick.
It followed a summer of speculation over a move to England with United or Tottenham. Sporting were ready to sell their crown jewel to help keep the club afloat but were holding out for a fee of £66.5m.
“We had a cash flow requirement of £95.5m and Bruno was key to this,” Sporting president Frederico Varandas revealed.
United revived their interest in January 2020 under pressure to deliver a new signing and, in particular, a player like Fernandes who could ignite their attack.
They agreed to pay an initial £46.6m and a further £21.2m could be due in bonuses, including one if he wins the Ballon d’Or. Those who have followed his career wouldn’t rule it out.
I'd joined Man Utd for two days and the fans already have a song for me. Because of them I'm raring to be myself, to take risks with the ball from the get-go.
When the fans are so completely behind you you're just fearless, you keep pushing, till you succeed."
—Fernandes credits Man Utd supporters for his outstanding debut month which saw United go undefeated and back in contention for a UEFA Champions League place
Fernandes broke down in tears in his farewell TV interview in Portugal and Sporting fans wept with him, but the player has got his dream move at the age of 25.
He touched down in Manchester by private jet with Ana, Matilde, and his agent Miguel Pinho on January 29 and made his debut against Wolves three days later, delivering a composed Man of-the-Match display.
His first assist would arrive the next game at Stamford Bridge—a pin-point corner-kick for Harry Maguire’s header—to help seal a vital win over top-four rivals Chelsea.
Another three goals, three assists, and a Premier League Player of the Month award followed before the season was put on hold; and Fernandes has endeared himself enough among the Old Trafford faithful to get a terraces song in his name.
“Bruno, Bruno, Bruno, he’s from Sporting like Cristiano. He goes left, he goes right, makes defences look shite, he’s our Portuguese magnifico.”
Some went as far as projecting their nostalgia for the determination of Roy Keane, the vision of Paul Scholes, and the class of Eric Cantona all on the new Red Devil.
I picked the no. 18 jersey at Man Utd for a number of reasons. I wore no. 8 at Sporting because it's my birthday and my father's number when he played, and 18 is close enough to 8. 18 is also my wife's birthday and, of course, worn by the United legend that is Paul Scholes.
I know I have a lot of responsibility with the number on my back but I enjoy that."
—Fernandes's positive stress mindset is a breathe of fresh air in post–Alex Ferguson Man Utd
“When you bring in new signings from different leagues in January it’s hard to know how they’re going to settle, but Bruno has fit in great on the pitch and is as important in the dressing room,” said United coach Michael Carrick.
“There’s certainly great expectations—that’s standard for a player of his calibre. To succeed you’ve got to be mentally able to cope.”
The early signs then are that Fernandes is carrying the weight of expectation without too much strain.