It's the 15th minute of India's crucial WCQ against Bangladesh. India have dominated possession, but haven't troubled their opponent's low block all that much. Which is when Brandon Fernandes receives the ball, on the half turn, a couple of metres past the centre line just to the left of the centre circle. He has already been smashed into a couple of times by eager markers and knows that he won't get much time on the ball. As he takes a couple of steps towards the ball, he can see the simple options -- pass it back to Chinglensana Singh and start another slow build-up from the back or keep the ball, dribble a little further and look for an opening. Neither approach has worked so far, the Bangladesh defence too well organised, too disciplined. There's a slightly tougher option -- to sweep it wide to Udanta Singh on the far right byline. But Fernandes had seen something else. Manvir Singh has drifted into the inside right channel and is all set to go on an angled run behind an unsuspecting Bangladesh defence. Without taking an extra touch, he pings it brilliantly, splitting the centre-backs, the ball rolling perfectly onto Manvir's path, the weight on it sublime.
That he saw the pass is in itself remarkable, that he played it like he did is quite something else. The reaction of the Bangladesh centre-backs, flat-footed and flummoxed, said it all. It's the kind of pass -- first-time, disguised, foot wrapping around the ball -- that most would either hesitate to play, or simply be unable to.
It's what makes Brandon Fernandes special.
India won that match 2-0, two Sunil Chhetri specials sealing the deal. He may not have contributed to either goal, but Fernandes had been the best player on the pitch, showcasing some of his finest skills throughout the game.
He stitched together India's attack -- and despite being repeatedly let down by lackadaisical finishing and poor touches -- kept at it. The Manvir one-on-one aside, he created a further seven chances, two of them gilt-edged (point-blank heading chances for Chhetri and Subashish Bose). He arrowed the ball down the left wing to Bipin Singh, and later Ashique Kuruniyan. He swept it wide to Udanta Singh and later Mohammed Yasir on the right. He found Chhetri and Manvir in between the lines repeatedly. He played cute reverses and magnificent crossfields. His set-piece delivery was brilliant. He dropped back to control play and moved forward to force things as the situation demanded.
"It's what the team demands. It's all automated by the mind," he says when asked how he adapts to different situations. "Once you're on the pitch, you just know what to do."
That last line captures Fernandes' essence to a T. He seems to have an instinctive feel for the game, for the ball. Passes form in his head, several moves ahead. "I scan the field, set an image in mind and create a pass."
Look at this image here, of the moment he released that pass to Manvir.
When pointed out, it's easy to see -- but imagine calculating the angles, the force required, adjusting for the nine moving bodies in front of you, all the while being wary of having your feet taken out from under you.
Just how did he get so good at this? Fernandes says it's all down to the fundamentals. "Basic passing drills. It's all about practising everyday. From a young age, I've been training the basic techniques of passing. When you train everyday, you tend to master it," he says. Before adding, "I still have more to learn and train to get better."
Practice also helps him understand his forwards' movement, to establish a wavelength. "It's basically learning my teammates' strengths," he says. "I tend to play the ball as per those points. Hence it gets easier to deliver and for them to connect"
For FC Goa, he plays more on the wings than in the trequartista role that he so excelled in for India last Monday. When stationed on the wings, he allows his fullback to do the running, encouraging overlaps and underlaps as he dictates play (usually from the left wing). But as a number 10, his full range of passing opens up. It's a freedom he relishes, but doesn't necessarily crave. "I'm comfortable in all these positions. Each position demands a different role. The coach decides the position [and I give my all]," he says.
He's a rare player in the old school system that India has seen on the field for many years -- two banks of four, a couple of strikers -- and it was only when Igor Stimac arrived that he was given an India debut. Stimac had arrived with the promise that India would play with the ball, and he quickly recognised that there was no way they were going to do that without Fernandes.
Before the Bangladesh game, India had scored three goals in six matches. All three had been assisted by Fernandes. For Stimac, he's the key. The good noises that have been coming out of Stimac's stint have been because of the coach's willingness to trust his players on the ball, to allow them to express themselves, to try and dictate play when possible. Most of it is directly linked with Fernandes' presence on the pitch.
Stimac will be looking to close out the WCQ campaign on a high against Afghanistan (a draw will be enough to seal third place, and automatic entry to the next round of qualification for the Asian Cup). His plans to unlock a traditionally stubborn Afghan defence will all revolve around one man. Brandon Fernandes, India's playmaker-in-chief.