Snubbing Brazil, Fernandes thrives with Russia at World Cup

Russia's Andrei Semenov, left, vies for the ball with Russia's Mario Fernandes, right, during a training session at the 2018 soccer World Cup, at the Federal Sports Centre Novogorsk, near Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. Russia play Croatia in a World Cup quarter final match on upcoming Saturday July 7.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

SOCHI, Russia (AP) Mario Fernandes was only 21 when he rejected a chance to play for Brazil’s national team.

Seven years later, the talented right back will be playing in the World Cup quarterfinals – with Russia’s national team.

The Brazil-born Fernandes is expected to start for the host nation against Croatia on Saturday in Sochi.

Fernandes shocked many in Brazil in 2011 when he didn’t report to the national team for that year’s Superclassico of the Americas against Argentina. He said personal problems prevented him from making it to the game, although the reasons were never fully explained. His agents at the time said they repeatedly tried to convince him to change his mind.

A couple of years before rejecting Brazil, Fernandes also attracted headlines after disappearing for several days shortly after signing his first professional contract with Brazilian club Gremio. Neither the club nor his agents knew of his whereabouts and police had to get involved. Fernandes was eventually found several thousand kilometers (miles) away from Gremio’s base in the southern city of Porto Alegre, saying he was homesick.

”The problems I had are in the past,” Fernandes said Friday. ”It all happened a long time ago. I’ve changed a lot since then. Now I have my feet on the ground. I’m trying to work hard to help the Russian national team and to make the Russian fans happy.”

Fernandes, who has added great ball skills to the Russian team, was seen as one of Brazil’s most-promising players and reportedly prompted interest from many European teams, including Inter Milan and Real Madrid. He eventually moved to CSKA Moscow in 2012.

Fernandes had been called up for the Brazilian national team before rejecting it in 2011, but he never played an official game. His only appearance with Brazil came after the 2014 World Cup in a friendly against Japan.

He earned Russian citizenship in 2016 and was touted to play with the Russian squad at the 2017 Confederations Cup, but was left out of the team after needing to undergo nose surgery. He hadn’t played much with the Russian team until making it to the World Cup, where he has been a starter.

Despite living in Russia for nearly six years, Fernandes still speaks only in Portuguese in news conferences and still needs some help from translators in training.

He said he keeps track of the Brazilian team and has contact with some of its players, especially former Gremio teammate Douglas Costa. Brazil plays its quarterfinal match against Belgium in Kazan on Friday.

”I’ll be watching the game,” the 27-year-old Fernandes said. ”We try to watch all the matches, not only Brazil’s.”

Fernandes may get yet another encounter with Brazil by the end of the World Cup, although he would have to wait until July 15, the date of the final.

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