A passionate and boisterous crowd of Indian football supporters at a packed Salt Lake Stadium, welcoming the team after eight long years to the city of joy, had suddenly gone silent on Tuesday. They could not believe their eyes. The Blue Tigers were a goal down in a must-win clash against Bangladesh courtesy of an awful first-half where they had conceded a silly goal, looked frustrated and were out of options.
A defeat to Bangladesh would have been a disaster.
On came Brandon Fernandes around the hour mark and the home side changed gears. They started asserting themselves in midfield and pushed their opponents on the backfoot with the midfielder injecting energy and much-needed spark in the middle.
After moments of despair, the opportunity finally arrived when Fernandes supplied the assist for Adil Khan’s equaliser from a corner. In what was otherwise a disappointing result, the match demonstrated the kind of impact the 25-year-old can have.
But the journey from a talented young footballer, who was once among the 10 boys from India to be selected for a special training camp with the Manchester United Soccer Schools, to the national team was far from smooth sailing.
Having represented India at the U-14, U-16 and U-19 level, Fernandes joined South Africa’s ASD Cape Town Academy at the age of 17 and even caught the eye of English scouts who offered him trials with Reading FC, Leicester City and Sunderland. But nothing materialised.
He returned to India and joined Sporting Club de Goa in 2015 but was hampered with injuries and needed quite some time to settle down at any club. He finally found his footing with Churchill Brothers in 2016/17 season in the I-League and then Indian Super League side FC Goa came calling in 2017.
Playing under coach Sergio Lobera at FC Goa, Fernandes has been a revelation for the Gaurs and in just two seasons, has established himself as one of the finest midfielders in the country.
Last season, he racked up six goals and as many assists across all competitions, guiding his side to the ISL final before winning the Super Cup in which he scored the eventual winner in the final. That goal helped FC Goa lift their first trophy in five years, one that the club deserved for the brand of football they have played.
“It is easier when you play with quality players around you. The philosophy we have, the way we play, it’s really good. If you are a ball player, you will just enjoy the game,” Fernandes told Scroll.in.
“Playing under Lobera helped me gain that confidence to do what I like and when you have players like Edu [Bedia], [Ferran] Corominas, [Ahmed] Jahouh around, you have the freedom to play. They have a lot of experience. Even if you make a slight mistake, it’s not a big problem because they are there to support you,” he added.
Despite the improved performance, the national call up was consistently eluding Fernandes under then India coach Stephen Constantine and it was only when Igor Stimac took over that he did get a look in.
When asked how he handled that phase, Fernandes said, “I had to control whatever was in my hands. Since I performed well [for FC Goa] I had those little expectations [of a call-up] but I just wanted to play for my club. Playing for the national team is the biggest achievement you can have. I always knew that it would come someday.”
Stimac wants the team to play more possession-based football with high pressing and quick ball movement. And Fernandes’ creativity and quick thinking abilities were what the Croatian was looking for.
“Stimac was very welcoming and positive. The moment I came in, he told me I was in his plans and that he wants to see me contribute more to the team,” he said.
A specialist in dead-ball situations who can waltz his way past defenders, Fernandes is known to draw defenders out of position or even play a perfectly-weighted pass in the final third. He is better down the left as a winger, where he cuts inside, charges into the box and links up play with him teammates.
“What I enjoy most about football is when I have the ball at my feet and it all depends on the situation. If it is a good opportunity for me to take on a defender, I will take him on or even pass/shoot. But my favourite part is scoring goals,” he revealed.
Opening up, with confidence
Fernandes made his India debut against Curacao in the King’s Cup in Thailand and has so far made five appearances for the national team and provided two assists.
“[My position] depends on how he wants to play. Even in the first match [against Curacao], I played as a central midfielder and then I switched to the wings. [Stimac’s style] is always about connection,” he explained.
However, the youngster hasn’t been Stimac’s first choice in central midfield or as a playmaker so far as the Croatian has preferred Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad in that role more often.
“Stimac wants a lot of defensive work as well, it’s not just about attacking. So maybe he is trying someone [for the number 10 role] who is equally adept in defending as well as attack. He sees me more as an attacking player. He wants me to play on the wing, drift inside and attack that way. The most important aspect in football is the midfield, you cannot leave gaps and maybe that is why he plays more of Sahal [Abdul Samad] or [Anirudh] Thapa because they have those defensive qualities,” Fernandes asserted.
In contrast, Fernandes loves the freedom to express himself and look for goals, a quality he developed when training at ASD Cape Town. He still remembers the time he scored a goal for his side being introduced as a substitute and how it changed the way he wanted to play.
“Back in South Africa, I was a very shy player. I would never talk and since I was in a different country, it was difficult for me to adapt,” said Fernandes, taking a moment to reflect on his time there.
“The coach put me [on the field] around the 60th minute. I played for just half-an-hour and scored the opening goal and since that [moment], I built so much confidence. I wanted to play more with the ball at my feet. Everything changed for me,” he said.
For many years, India has craved for a No 10 who can not only unlock defences with his vision but also chip in with goals. Though Fernandes is just about finding his feet in the national team, Stimac’s philosophy of playing possession-based football definitely provides an opportunity for the 25-year-old to showcase his skills and stake claim to that coveted position.
Fernandes has managed to make an impact with the quality of his passes and probing runs in the few opportunities he has got so far and the shy boy from Margao, Goa, wants his feet to do the talking.