It was perhaps the most heart-warming moment of the season so far. Roger Fernandes, a 15-year-old boy given his opportunity with Braga, scoring late in their cup tie against Moitense and racing to the touchline to embrace his coach Carlos Carvalhal.
Roger was born in Guinea-Bissau but moved to Portugal as a young child. Shortly before the game in mid-October, his father had passed away. He had been unable to attend the funeral back in Africa because of the travel restrictions in place during the pandemic.
“We tried to give him the best support,” Carvalhal tells Sky Sports. “A boy in those circumstances needed some love, he needed a moment. And it was a special moment, I must say. There is a connection because I played him but I did it because he deserved it.
Carlos Carvalhal with Roger Fernandes before his introduction in the Taca de Portugal tie against Moitense on October 17 (Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo)
“They always have to deserve it. What I enjoy is seeing a boy and thinking he can be a first-team player. When we analyse the young players, they never let us down. I never end up wishing I had not done it. These boys always seem to surprise us in a positive way.”
Carvalhal had already given Roger his professional debut in the Portuguese Super Cup against Sporting in July. His league debut came soon after against the same opposition. Injuries presented the chance but it was his extraordinary maturity that helped him to seize it.
“One day, I had a problem with my left winger Galeno and so I went to those responsible for the academy and asked if they had a player in this position,” Carvalhal explains. “They said, ‘Coach, I want you to see this boy.’ So I brought him up to play in a friendly game.
“When doing my analysis notes after the game to correct the boy, there was something that I did not understand because this boy was doing everything that we had requested for this position. I wanted to correct something but I had nothing. Absolutely zero.
Carlos Carvalhal embraces Roger Fernandes after he scores (Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo)
“It was unbelievable. I know football. This is not normal.
“I asked him the next day, ‘Where did you learn this? Who taught you? This is a complex position.’ He told me that he watched all of Braga’s games and when he had been told that he would play as a left winger, he spent all that day watching videos of Galeno.
“He had studied his movements in the offensive phase, defensive phase and the transition. Wow. At 15 years old, this was something special. The modern young player does not like to watch full games but this boy had done all that he could to learn this position.”
The celebrations continue after Roger Fernandes’ goal (Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo)
This precocious talent might be rare but there is nothing unusual about Braga’s commitment to youth. Indeed, it is essential to their ongoing success.
“Last season, Benfica spent 100 million euros on players and we spent GBP250,000, so we are competing in completely different circumstances,” says Carvalhal.
“So we try to play good football and develop the players because for the club to survive, it must sell players and make money. The youth is important for us. In this context, we have put nine players from the academy in the team. One of those boys in Roger.”
The strategy is working. Braga are on course to reach the last 16 of the Europa League by topping their qualifying group. They secured their place in the competition by winning the Portuguese cup final last season in their centenary year – against Benfica.
For Carvalhal, the homecoming hero, it was particularly special, undoubtedly the greatest moment of his career. “I was born in Braga, I live in Braga, all my family are from Braga. I played for the team and I was captain. I still live about one mile from the stadium.”
He had turned down an offer from Brazilian giants Flamengo to take the job in the summer of 2020. “My wife, my son, my daughter, they all told me the same – it is a pandemic, very dangerous, we don’t know what will happen. I decided that I could not go to Brazil.”
That interest from South America endures in part because Carvalhal has become one of football’s renaissance men, transforming his playing style since his time in English football with Sheffield Wednesday and as a Premier League coach at Swansea.
At Rio Ave, he took them into Europe with the best points tally in their history by playing an exciting brand of football and has continued with that philosophy at Braga. Porto boss Sergio Conceicao described Carvalhal’s team as the best footballing side in Portugal.
“That transformation in our football was a big step but we had to do something different. Instead of preparing a team with a system – 4-3-3 or 5-4-1 – we prepared a team with the focus on spaces. We changed completely our idea about football.”
Braga head coach Carlos Carvalhal has changed his footballing philosophy
Delivering that trophy, one of three cup finals Braga have contested, has vindicated Carvalhal’s decision to change his ideas and vindicated his decision to return home.
“I had an idea that we could put our name in the trophy room, that we could do something special. To win it in the club’s centenary year was special, absolutely fantastic. I was very emotional. When I had the trophy in my hands, it meant everything to me.
“When I talked with my family, that was the emotional moment, because they could not be there due to the pandemic. Those are the moments when it makes sense why you are in football, when you connect all these things dating back to when you are five years old.”
It was a special day but Carvalhal hopes that the legacy will last rather longer.
“Our name is in the club’s history because of the trophy, but I believe the fans will remember the good football and the boys that we have brought through.”
Boys like Roger Fernandes.