Life Inside the Hurricane

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A reporter once asked me, “Don’t you ever get tired of winning?”

Well, the answer is no. Quite the contrary.

I mean, it’s much better than losing, right?

Each title has a special flavour and winning just gives you more energy to keep going.

When you get into that mentality, when you are so focused on the next victory it’s like … and maybe this will sound like a strange analogy ... it’s like being in the middle of the hurricane.

You perceive things differently from the inside, though, even as you're being buffeted and shaken. You get into this routine and you cut out the noise, the wind, the rain.

In the moment, you only have to win and move on, vamos! O.K., we won today, but now we prepare for the next game, the next challenge. There’s no time to reflect. To celebrate, really.

All athletes will tell you about this, right? It sounds like a cliché but it’s true. You need this attitude to stay at the top of your game.

For me, I’ve been in the middle of the hurricane for so long now. It’s been over 15 years since I first arrived in Europe. Fifteen years!

I think I’ve earned the right to just a little reflection, you know?

One example of why it’s so important to keep up that mentality is something that happened to us at City earlier this season, and a talk I ended up giving to the squad.

Let me tell you what happened.

I’m usually not a guy who makes big speeches, but a few months ago I really had no choice.

It was 31 December, New Year’s Eve.

We were eighth in the Premier League table.

And we had just finished training.

And Pep wasn’t happy.

To understand the whole story though, we need to go back to the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

Oh man, the start of this season was so messy, for everyone. The way we had to come back after three months of inactivity, then we had practically no pre-season. Nothing like that had ever happened in our careers.

You can’t imagine the amount of COVID tests I’ve done now. My nose was already big before. Imagine it now! Haha!

Physically it was tough, but mentally it was very heavy too.

Since the pandemic and the restart, everything has changed in our routine as players. Everything. Little things we used to do on a daily basis as part of coming into work, we simply can’t do anymore. Simple, obvious things related to food, recovery, socialising.

The reality has totally changed. And we’ve had to adapt. It’s been tough and it’s taken its toll on how we are.

But, I believe, what has always made Manchester City able to keep going no matter what, to grind out results in difficult times, is our mental strength. 

That’s what has put us over the top. What has made us champions in the past.

Fernandinho | Manchester City F.C. | The Players' Tribune
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Still, near the end of the year we were eighth, and on New Year’s Eve we had this training session.

It was not a good session.

The attitude, the body language, the effort from some players, it was just obvious. You know exactly the kind of session I’m talking about, right? Misplaced passes, players not tracking back, not running, not looking interested.

This was not us. This was not the team that had won two titles in a row, or that had set a record points total. 

After that session, Pep came and spoke to me as captain, as the leader of the team. He was blunt. He told me that not everyone was at 100%. And, in this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100%, or you stay home. Once you enter the pitch, there is no conversation, no negotiation. 

He was right. And he made it clear that the responsibility for keeping those standards rested with me.

At the start of this season, after David Silva left, I was voted to be club captain. It’s a huge honour. All the players and the staff vote, you know? It’s not just Pep. 

The role of captain in England is quite different from what it is in other countries, like Brazil. I have a lot of new responsibilities now. So many things related to scheduling and discipline. You have no idea! I’m now responsible for the club fines, like when someone uses their phone in physical therapy, for example. 

But it’s a really cool job and an incredible honour at a club like City, where the standards are so high, and not one I take lightly.

After that session, I went home to be with my family for the celebrations, but I couldn’t get that conversation with Pep out of my head, you know?

Even on New Year’s Eve watching fireworks with my family I was thinking about my duty as captain to Manchester City.

The next day, at 7 a.m. on January 1, 2021, I sent a message to our team manager and told him, “Set up a meeting with the players. We need to talk.”  

I arrived at the ground in the morning ahead of training, and I said, “Tell Pep we’ll start training a little later today.” 

It was an emergency.

In this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100%, or you stay home.

Fernandinho

Once we got everyone together, I spoke openly to them. I spoke as captain, you know? 

I told them what Pep had told me, that some things are inexcusable. I told them that what you do in training reflects back at you later on in the game.

It was very frank, very honest. After me, all the others spoke their minds too. Everyone already knew we needed to change, but we needed to hear it said. We needed to be shaken. And it was important that we talked. 

We were still at a point in the campaign where we could turn things around. Or we could passively watch it slide away.

Our next game was away at Chelsea, who were flying in the league at the time. Before the match, I thought to myself, “If these guys don’t run here, that’s it, I’m done!” I was ready to lose all morale.

But, of course, we won. We won well. By halftime we were 3–0 up. We ran almost too much! 

Thank God, since then we’ve been on an amazing, record-breaking run.

We got back into the hurricane.

City helped me take my winning mentality to another level, but I already had it in me before I moved to England.

I have never been that refined a player, with perfect technique, but I have never shied away from a battle. My teammates, coaches and the fans know they can count on me. I will always give my blood. Always.

I was like that even when I first moved to Europe all those years ago.

When I got the offer to leave Brazil for Shakhtar Donetsk I was just 20 years old. Back then, I knew nothing about European football — let alone about Ukraine. 

I couldn’t have told you what currency they used. I certainly couldn’t have pointed to it on a map. To me, Europe was just this big, faraway place, with many different countries.

At the time, I was doing well at Athletico Paranaense, but I was still just a kid from Londrina with almost no experience of the outside world.

I tell you, I remember once when we went to play in the Copa Libertadores in Colombia, the club paid us a daily rate of $30. American dollars! That was a huge deal for us.

My friend Alan Bahia and I were so excited that we decided to write our names on our hotel beds with the bills. We’d never seen so much money! Of course, it was easy for him with such a short name, Alan. For me, I ended up having to complete it with some leftover Brazilian reais haha!

But when the offer from Shakhtar came up, it was a good opportunity for me to prove myself as a footballer. And of course, there was also the financial side. For Athletico Paranaense, the money they got for me was used to renovate their training centre. For me, I could’ve probably written all of my family’s names on my bed!

Fernandinho | Manchester City F.C. | The Players' Tribune
Alexander Khudoteply/EuroFootball/Getty Images

At the end of my first month in Ukraine, I didn’t have a bank account yet and the club actually did pay my match bonuses in cash. It was this huge brick of cash. For a kid who thought $30 was a lot, this was crazy!

I was staying at a hotel at the time and I didn’t know what to do with it. I showed my wife and in the end, she wrapped it in a towel and hid it in our pressure cooker! She was like, “Here, nobody is going to mess with it. Ukrainians don’t even know what a pressure cooker is!” Haha!

With my first paychecks and the signing-on fee, I even bought an apartment for my mum in Curitiba. Compared to some of my old teammates, I was very careful, let’s say!

But money aside, I ended up spending eight wonderful years in Ukraine.

It opened my understanding to a new culture and way of life. It took time, but I learned to speak Russian. I’m still in contact with many of the friends I made. And most importantly, my son was born there, so a part of me will always be Ukranian. 

Believe me then when I say I have a special affection for this country and its people … but man … I have to tell you, it was so cold!

In the part of Brazil where I’m from, even in the coldest months, it rarely goes below 15℃. Imagine my shock when that first winter in Donetsk hit. I’d never even seen snow before!

I will always remember that January, when we came back from the Christmas break. It was one of the harshest in Europe that year. 

I’m talking –26℃, –27℃. Honestly. 

I remember, all I could do was run to my car, drive to the training centre, train, back to my car and home again. Walking anywhere was impossible! 

It was really tough but you get used to it. It was a new challenge and I liked that.

It was the same with the football itself. It was faster, more dynamic, more running than I was used to in Brazil. I needed to adapt to that too. But I did, with the help of my teammates and coaches.

As a player and a person, I’ve always been someone who enjoys the struggle in order to get the reward. I liked having to change my old habits and being immersed in something totally new. To really learn and enjoy, you have to suffer a bit. You end up evolving, not only as a professional but as a person as well.

When I do succeed, the moments when I lift those trophies, the things that make it extra sweet are the little memories of all those struggles, the adaptation processes, injuries, and even of training with snow hitting my face.

I know I’d do it all over again.

My son was born there, so a part of me will always be Ukranian.

Fernandinho

In those eight years, we won many titles in Ukraine, but my best memory — without a doubt — was winning the UEFA Cup in 2009.

The club, and the president in particular, had invested a lot in Brazilian talent over the years and had grand plans to make Shakhtar one of the biggest names in Europe. To do that you need European titles.

In my four years at the club, before finally winning the UEFA Cup, we really suffered on the Continent. We had so many painful eliminations. I remember in 2007, we went out to Sevilla when their keeper scored ... in the last minute. I mean, come on!

These kinds of defeats can make you want to give up, but we just kept going. We knew we had the technical quality and the willpower and, on May 20, 2009, in Istanbul against Werder Bremen, it finally happened.

That trophy was a huge moment for the club. It was the realisation of a goal that we all shared.

For us Brazilians — five of us started in the final — it was a vindication of the project in Ukraine and the club’s faith in us.

Nowadays, if you talk about Shakhtar in Brazil, people know who you are talking about. We helped put them on the map and that is pretty special.

That mindset of never giving up and never letting standards slip, that’s what led me to City and where I am today.

As much as the English Premier League is one of the most watched in the world, I must admit I actually followed it very little before I moved to City.

I was a Champions League addict, but I didn’t have time to study other domestic leagues.

But I moved because it was another new challenge, an exciting project, and I wanted to take that next step in my career.

In Ukraine, we had a very good team but we were very dominant domestically and there was not much pressure from the fans, or the press. We were a cut above in our division. 

I was sailing in calm waters, basically, whereas the Premier League is like a constant storm. 

All the teams have great financial power and the league itself is so frantic. You can play three games in one week, all of absurd intensity, and you are expected to give everything in every single one, to win every single one!

One man who has had a big influence on my time in England and shaping my mentality is Pep.

We’ve been working together six years and I’ve learned so much in that time. Clearly he is one of the best football coaches ever. A revolutionary.

Fernandinho | Manchester City F.C. | The Players' Tribune
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The guy is very intelligent and detail-oriented but more than that he is a brilliant teacher. You know how sometimes you have teachers who are really geniuses in their field but they don’t help their students to learn because they can’t get the information across? Well, Pep just has this ability to transmit the message he wants, whether it’s technical, tactical, or whatever. Everybody just gets him — which is not easy in a second language, let me tell you!

His office door is always open and you have the freedom to talk openly with him about everything.

For me, though, he is great because he demands 100% at all times. On the field, in meetings, wherever.

He told me that the standards weren’t good enough during that New Year’s Eve session and made it clear that it was up to me, as captain, to help put it right for the good of the team.

We have done incredible things here at this club in recent years. Historic things.

We’ve set records.

We got 198 points in two seasons. 

They called us the Centurions, you know?

Not even Liverpool last season could top that!

We are the product of everything we have put into practice over the years on and off the field.

Many people have asked me what it was like in those incredible 2017–’18 and 2018–’19 seasons with Manchester City. If we realised what we were achieving in those moments.

Honestly, I think it will take a while to really understand what happened, for it to sink in. Maybe it will only happen when I retire and look back. Maybe it will take another 15 years!

One day though, I will sit down with my kids — or grandkids — and reflect on everything I have achieved on this continent.

On that day, I will serve up some shrimp, pour myself some coconut water, lean back in my favourite chair and tell them all about it.

The winters in Ukraine.

The pressure cooker.

That training session.

The titles.

Man, it will be such a sweet moment. 

But I won’t do it now. Not yet.

There is still too much left to do.

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