Brighton’s Bernardo: In my School, I was the Only Black Guy. It Bothers me

Brighton’s Bernardo: In my School, I was the Only Black Guy. It Bothers me

Thursday, 23 August, 2018 - 06:30
Brighton's Bernardo Fernandes da Silva Junior. (The Guardian)
London - Jacob Steinberg
“I think I have a Brazilian soul,” Bernardo Fernandes da Silva Junior says as he prepares to delve into a discussion about Brazil’s social divide on an entertaining afternoon at the Amex Stadium. “You see me laughing and joking. But I had a different education from most players because my dad could afford to invest in certain things for me. Most people in Brazil could not have that.”

Bernardo, Brighton’s new Brazilian defender, is aware of the world around him. His father is Bernardo Fernandes da Silva, a former footballer who won the Brazilian championship with São Paulo, counted Careca as a teammate, represented Bayern Munich and earned 19 caps for Brazil, and he knows he was lucky to enjoy a privileged upbringing. His parents could afford to send him to a private school in São Paulo, he enjoyed exciting family holidays and his mother, Irene, was happy to give him lifts to training.

Yet while Bernardo is quick to accept his father’s family had a humble background, it was football that opened his eyes to the other side of Brazilian life. “In school I was with the rich kids,” he says. “In training I was with the poor kids. I could keep my feet on the ground. I could understand how it works in Brazil. We have many people with a lot of money and even more with nothing.

“You see, but you don’t want to see sometimes. There were kids in my school who had a chauffeur, inside a tinted bullet-proof car, and you go from your home to your school, home to the shopping mall, and sometimes you don’t realize or want to realize what is really happening.

“It bothers me. In my school, I was the only black guy. It comes from Brazilian history. Black people never had the opportunity to have a good education to change their future. If you go to the poor places, you see black people. The rich people are white. I would like to help all people, not just black people, the minorities, with good education to give them the opportunity to get into good universities.”

Bernardo explains that the problem in Brazil is the top schools are private and expensive. “That’s why poor people and black people can’t get into good universities, get good jobs and change the country,” he says.

He cannot afford to inspire social change yet but he can give himself a break. Bernardo is 23 and has worked hard to achieve his dream of playing in England. He has memories of the “lazy Sundays” when he would wake up late and watch the Premier League, and he remembers the accusations of nepotism when he was a youngster. “My dad being a footballer never bothered me,” Bernardo says. “Something I heard sometimes is about my dad retiring to become an agent. Then people would say: ‘Ah, he is there because his dad is an agent.’”

Yet football was in Bernardo’s blood – he traveled to Russia to attend the World Cup as a fan this summer – and his career has followed an intriguing path. When he was 18 he moved to Red Bull Brasil in search of regular football. It meant dropping into the fourth division but also that Bernardo was part of something different.

“Red Bull is really organized,” he says. “It was a top structure. They said: ‘You are a young player, you have a European profile and we have clubs in Austria and Germany, so if you get some minutes they might call you to do some training there.’”

Red Bull Salzburg came calling in 2016 and Bernardo spent six months in Austria, winning the league, only to lose their Champions League qualifier to Dinamo Zagreb the following season. Bernardo was devastated. The next day, however, he received an offer from RB Leipzig. He is capable of playing in both full-back positions and in midfield; his versatility appealed to the German club. He played in the same team as Naby Keïta and helped Leipzig finish second in his first season in the Bundesliga.

But while Leipzig had risen from the second division, rival supporters disliked them because of their sponsorship by the same energy drinks company who added their name to Salzburg. “The fans from Dortmund threw rocks at our fans,” Bernardo says. “In Dresden, they brought a bull’s head and threw it on the pitch. I was still at Salzburg then. But I really don’t understand the hate for Red Bull. It’s just about being the new club that in two years became better than the traditional clubs.

“If you see Leverkusen, they have Bayer behind them. Even Bayern have T-Mobile and Adidas. Wolfsburg? Volkswagen. In Germany they still try to pretend they are traditional clubs. This is why they didn’t accept Red Bull. Not because of the sponsorship but because of the way they did things.”

Bernardo enjoyed his time at Leipzig but he was delighted when Brighton made a £9m offer for him this summer. He is a fan of English football and liked to find out about smaller clubs by choosing them on the computer game FIFA. “I think I did a game with Brighton already,” he says. “But not when they were in the Premier League.”

He is aware of the club’s history. He knows about their exile at Withdean Stadium and their rivalry with Crystal Palace. Perhaps he has inherited his inquisitive nature from his mother after following in her footsteps by starting a degree in journalism.

“She used to work in radio in a small city in Brazil,” he says. “She was there the whole day talking about different subjects, from sport to politics. I always wanted to be in sports. If I wasn’t going to be a football player, I wanted to be a commentator on the radio. With television, I don’t like to see my image.”

He did his due diligence before joining Brighton. “I didn’t know the city. When I asked people in Brazil about it, they always mentioned the concert of Fatboy Slim. People would go: ‘Oh my God, man, you need to see this DVD I have of Fatboy Slim on the pier at Brighton.’ I also had some friends who did internships in London and they came to Brighton for the beach. All the feedback was really good.”

The only time Bernardo’s face drops is after a question about his disappointing debut in the 2-0 defeat at Watford. He looks down at the floor, admonishes himself for failing to adjust to switching from left-back to right‑back when Bruno suffered an injury in the first half and says he has to work out English referees.

Yet Bernardo had a chance to make amends when Brighton defeated Manchester United 3-2 on Sunday.

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