Fernandinho — The Brazilian footballer bridging cultural gap in China

Fernandinho is one of 24 Brazilian footballers playing in the 16-team Chinese Super League.

Chongqing Dangdai Lifan's Fernandinho taking part in a training session at the football club in southwest China's Chongqing municipality.   -  AFP

He does not have the fame — or enormous wages — of Shanghai-based Carlos Tevez or Oscar, and his nickname would be viewed as offensive by many.

But Fernandinho, one of the growing number of Brazilian footballers in China, is bridging a wide cultural gap and finding celebrity in the southwestern city of Chongqing.

READ: How Chinese Super League affects European football

At 10:45am, he arrives to smiles in the gym, where he stretches before lifting a barbell, alongside a dozen Chinese team-mates. He is known in the city by his nickname “Xiao Hei”, or “Little Black”. It is a reference to his age (24), and his skin colour.

While some might be offended, Fernandinho — not to be confused with his more illustrious namesake at Manchester City — simply laughs it off. “The cultural differences are vast... Brazilians are quite boisterous, and people in China are more reserved,” he said.

“But everybody does his best to communicate, and I often make jokes with my Chinese team-mates, who do the same.”

The forward arrived at Chongqing, a metropolis of 8.5 million — roughly the population of Switzerland — in the summer of 2015, after a mixed experience at Estoril in Portugal’s Primeira Liga.

Today, he is one of 24 Brazilian footballers playing in the 16-team Chinese Super League.

They are among the 78 foreign players who have moved to the country in recent years, many after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s demand for China to become a world football power unleashed a flood of spending.

Some of the players have made headlines for their bumper-sized salaries and luxurious lifestyles.

Oscar, the former Chelsea star, is paid $24 million euros a year by Shanghai SIPG and lives in a sumptuous apartment of 400 square meters (4,300 square feet) with a view of the Shanghai Bund waterfront, according to media reports.

But unlike some of the big-name stars, Fernandinho leads a relatively frugal life.

“Foreign footballers come not only for the money, but also to participate in this football boom,” he said.

Modest ambitions

In Brazil, Fernandinho started at Flamengo, a prestigious Rio club with a large fan-base, where competition was fierce.

His Chinese club, Chongqing Dangdai Lifan, has more modest ambitions. Last season, it finished eighth out of 16 in the Super League and is happy merely to remain in the division.

That makes Fernandinho a big fish in a little pond: he is the team’s star, plays every game, and attracts fans in a stadium with a capacity of 60,000 spectators.

One of the club’s shareholders, Lifan Motors, even produced a ‘Fernandinho limited edition’ motorcyle, promoted by the player himself.

The Brazilian player says he feels “very happy” in the club and eager to “work hard to give fans pleasure“.

The level of play, though, is not what he is accustomed to: the Super League’s quality remains patchy, while China’s national team is 81st in the world rankings.

But Xi’s ambitions for the country to one day host and win a World Cup have lifted expectations, government support and spending by clubs.

“We are playing good football in China... it is getting stronger and all the great players who come here bring visibility,” says Fernandinho.

Argentina’s Tevez is on a reported salary of $38 million at Shanghai Shenhua, making him the world’s best-paid player, while other South American stars include Ramires at Jiangsu Suning and Alexandre Pato at Shanghai SIPG.

Steaks and PlayStation

Despite living in China for nearly two years, Fernandinho still has a long way to go before he makes a full adjustment to his new life.

Aside from “nihao” (hello) and “xiexie” (thank you), he has no Chinese, and very little English.

When he trains, goes to the bank, competes or deals with the country’s bureaucracy, the club provides a Chinese interpreter who speaks Portuguese.

But Fernandinho is not alone in his new home: the assistant coaches of the Chongqing club are also Brazilian.

And he stays in daily contact with friends and family via mobile apps.

He is still not used to Chinese cuisine, however. He remains a fervent fan of churrasco, the Brazilian barbecue that he enjoys regularly with compatriots living in Chongqing.

“At the club, they know my habits, and they prepare what I like: rice, omelettes, sometimes chicken, steaks. And at home I eat Brazilian food,” he says.

Sometimes he has lunch at the Blue Frog, a trendy Western burger restaurant and sports bar that broadcasts football matches. He buys clothes from internationally known chains.

Fernandinho says he spends much of his free time in his rented apartment. “I play on my PlayStation, I watch movies...

Sometimes I also play pool, go bowling and travel elsewhere in China.”

He still has plenty of time to explore the country: his contract will expire only at the end of 2019. Does he want to settle permanently in China, or even marry a Chinese woman?

“I want to play football for a while here,” he says, bursting into laughter.

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