Cover Your Ears

Courtesy of Portuguese National Team

We have to start with my brother. We can’t tell my story without him. He’s my big brother, and even worse, he’s a Barca fan. So first, we must tell a funny story about him, no?

Growing up, our relationship was a bit funny because he’s five years older than me, and we always had to share a bedroom. When you’re young, this is no problem. It’s kind of fun, right? But when my brother was getting older, like 15 or 16, and he wanted to bring his friends home — now all of a sudden we had a big problem! He just wanted to be alone, and I was running around the house doing whatever little brothers do. Being annoying, surely.

He was always telling me, “Bruno, go outside and play!”

So thanks to him (and his friends), most of my memories as a kid involve me with the ball at the park, or me going to school with the ball under my arm. I don’t know how it is everywhere else. But in Portugal, especially at that time — the time of Euro 2004, the time of great players in Portugal National Team — if you loved football, you lived it.

This was the time of young Messi and Cristiano and the peak of Ronaldinho. Everywhere you went, kids would be having arguments about who was the best, and of course it was no different with me and my brother. Who is gonna win the Ballon d’Or this year? Who scores better goals? Who is the GOAT?

I was always Team Cristiano.

My brother was always Team Messi.

One Christmas, my brother and I went to Switzerland to stay with my dad. He was living there for work at the time. This was before the Internet made it so easy to buy kits from all over the world. In Portugal, you couldn’t always find Premier League kits, and if you could, they were really expensive. So one day, we went into a Nike shop and our dad let us pick out two jackets. This was a big decision, you know? My brother chose a yellow Barcelona one because of Messi. And for me … well, I am proud to say that even back then I was a man of sophistication.

I chose Man United, of course.

I still remember that jacket so clearly. Blue with a single white stripe and little bit of red.

Because of Cristiano, my dream team in England was United.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

My teachers used to tell me, “Bruno, football is not a realistic dream. It’s super competitive. You need to study.” And I just thought, “O.K., thank you. I’m going to work even harder then!”

I think that if you have a dream, you need to be a little bit obsessed. You need to be creative, too. Growing up, we would make a pitch anywhere, building goalposts out of sticks on a field that was more sand than grass. Of course, these playground games could be very intense. We had plenty of “discussions,” let’s say.

In a way, it reminds me of what happened with my United teammate Victor Lindelöf not long ago. We had our little discussion that was picked up by the microphones during the Europa League semifinal, and the newspapers made a big deal out of it. But for me it was just the same as those childhood games back in my hometown of Maia. In Portugal, this is how you play football. This is how you communicate. If you say or do something wrong, I’ll tell you about it. I live football like it has to be lived — in the moment. But it stays on the pitch. That’s it. And tomorrow, we’re all friends again. We hug, we get on with it.

To be honest, I like criticism. Because it helps you to improve and understand that you can't relax. It motivates me. You know, some people surround themselves with “yes men,” but that’s not me. I want people like my friends on the playgrounds who aren’t afraid to point the finger at me and tell me where I’m going wrong.

I like to come home after a match and hear, “I love you, but you really should’ve scored today. Good passing, yes. But many missed chances.”

Sometimes I even hear it from my daughter Matilde. And she’s only 3! But her criticism is a bit different. You see, when she was very little, she started messing with me and my wife. We would ask her to put away her toys or something, and she would put her hands over her ears pretending she was not listening. “Blah, blah, blah, I can’t hear you, daddy.” 

I found it really funny, so that’s why I started celebrating my goals by putting my hands over my ears. Matilde would watch me on TV and she started to understand that it had a meaning — that it was all for her. So now if I forget to do it, or even if the TV cameras don't catch me doing it, it’s a problem. As soon as I come home she asks me, “Why didn’t you do it, daddy???”

Hahaha, this is my life, you see?

I want to learn. To improve. To be a better Bruno every day.

Jan Kruger/UEFA via Getty Images

This mentality, like everything in my story, comes from my family. Growing up, my father was never interested in how many goals I scored, how many passes I made, but only in how many mistakes I made, and how I could be more efficient.

I remember one time when I was at Boavista, playing in an under-15s match against Porto — one of the strongest teams in all of Portugal — and I was playing well. I was actually playing in defence that day against these huge, fast Porto players. Even though we lost 1–0, I stood out so much so that everyone was congratulating me.

Even one of Porto’s coaches came over and he actually said, “This boy is gonna be a footballer!” 

That was amazing. I was over the moon.

But not my father.

He said, “Did you see what happened for Porto’s goal? If you hadn’t been so deep, the cross wouldn’t have been so easy for them.”

I started to think about Porto’s goal and honestly I wasn’t even involved in the build-up. I was on the other side of the pitch! But my father was so convinced that I started to worry about it, and to analyse everything. Whenever I lost a game back then, I would obsess over it. I didn’t want to eat. I would just close my bedroom door to stew on the match. This was the birth of my mentality, which some people might find a bit extreme. But for me, it works.

Courtesy of Bruno Fernandes

I needed that mentality to survive. When you’re 14 or 15, everything starts to change. It’s not enough just to be talented, or to work hard, or to be mentally strong. You have to combine absolutely everything. You have to live football, completely.

A few years later, I went to play abroad in Italy, and I was tested. I was all on my own at 17 in a new country. I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t know anyone, and let me tell you, it was hard. It was unbelievably hard and lonely. There were times when I wanted to quit, absolutely.

If my father hadn’t instilled that mentality inside me when I was young, I don’t think I would have been strong enough to survive Italy. If he was one of those fathers who told me, “You played unbelievable” after every match, I don’t think I would’ve made it.

Because the real world doesn’t work like that.

The real world doesn’t tell you that you were unbelievable after every match.

A lot of times they are people that criticise you telling that you are not good enough. That’s just football. You have to be able to take it with a smile, and analyse it truthfully, and use it as motivation.

My family always told me the truth, so I listened to them when I wanted to give up, and they told me, “Bruno, you can’t. This is your dream, and you have to keep going.”

Those words had weight coming from them, you know?

And so I kept going. I kept pushing. And a few years later, something unbelievable happened.

August 28, 2017. I can remember the date.

I was called up to the Portugal national team for the World Cup Qualifiers against the Faroe Islands. Representing your country in any circumstances is a huge honour.

13 years before I entered that dressing room, I was nine-year-old Bruno, getting my face painted and carrying the Portugal flag.

But just imagine it … 13 years before I entered that dressing room, I was nine-year-old Bruno, getting my face painted and carrying the Portugal flag as my family and I walked into the centre of Maia to watch the Euro 2004 final against Greece on this huge screen in the square.

That was the year that Cristiano had exploded onto the scene. It was a moment that everyone in Portugal remembers. But when you’re nine years old? Everything is bigger. Everything means more. Though we lost to Greece that day, what I remember most are the tears of all players at the final whistle.

So now you understand why 13 years later, when I entered the dressing room of the National Team A for the first time, this was really a pleasure for me. When Cristiano walked into the dressing room that day, I was so shy! I was nervous, man.

To get to play alongside Cristiano and other very good Portuguese players makes me very proud, and I hope I can help inspire the next generation of nine-year-olds with painted faces, watching us in their own town squares. Because if they think “Oh, I could never be like Bruno,” I can tell them my story and say to them truthfully, “No, no. I’m the same as you. I watched Cristiano, dreaming, like you’re watching us now.”

Courtesy of Portuguese National Team

Signing for Manchester United this winter, it felt like the culmination of that dream. When I found out from my agent that it was really going to happen, obviously my mind went back to that day in Switzerland, picking out the jackets with my brother. But there were so many steps along the way that nobody understands — so many difficult moments that only my family experienced with me.

When I knew for sure that the deal was happening, the first thing I did was tell my wife and daughter the news, and I couldn’t help it … I just started crying.

Tears of joy. Tears of happiness. Tears of memories.

I thought of the time when my wife was still just my girlfriend, and I called her from Italy telling her I wanted to give up, and she said, “No, no, no. This is your dream. No.”

Next I called my brother, and I started crying again.

I thought of all the arguments we had as kids about who was the GOAT, which club was going to win the Champions League, and who United were going to sign in the transfer market.

I think he was crying, too.

Of course, I also called my dad. The man who had pushed me the hardest in life in pursuit of my dream, my biggest constructive critic, and the man who sacrificed everything to go work abroad to make money for our family.

And you know what? He was crying too.

No notes. No feedback. Just tears from him and from my mother and little sister who were next to him listening.

Now that I’m playing for United, my father actually gives me a little break.

He waits the full 24 hours after the match to text me his feedback.

Maybe one day, if I win the World Cup, and I don’t forget to cover my ears when I score, I will finally have earned 48 hours of tranquility.