The ‘Fredao smile’ is on full power. He is beaming. He is renowned in Brazil as a happy footballer, a player with a positive spirit, and is aware that this has not always been in evidence at Manchester United.
He was quickly written off, cast as a £52million flop. He feared his face did not fit at Old Trafford after his move from Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer of 2018. He felt isolated and had sad thoughts.
But Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, the 27-year-old midfielder from Belo Horizonte, has emerged as a key figure in United’s revival under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and is dreaming of the Premier League title and a return to the Brazil team.
Fred is renowned as a happy footballer, and the Brazilian has sprung into life at Man United
The £52m midfielder has been at the heart of United’s push into the Premier League title race
‘At the beginning, I felt the distance from other players and I even felt alone sometimes,’ Fred tells Sportsmail. ‘I lacked support maybe, but I could not speak the language that well, so it sort of became a barrier between the players and me.
‘I knew there was just one recipe to success: keep on training, not letting those bad comments affect my mind. If I was an angry guy, I guess I’d have thrown it all away because of what I heard during those times.’
Learning the language made a big difference and the arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon last year helped. Fred and Fernandes soon became close friends, speaking in Portuguese and having fun together.
It helped Fred to be himself, it helped to put the smile back on his face and he wasn’t the only player lifted by Fernandes, who intensified the competition for places and triggered United’s incredible resurgence.
‘We are all friends here at United,’ says Fred. ‘But it is good to feel that everyone wants a spot in the starting XI.
‘In training, every player is giving his best, driving, pushing to the front, myself included. It is a feeling that, if I am out of one game, I’ll be sad because I want to play, I need to play, you know?’
But it is not just Fernandes who Fred credits with United’s rise. A certain France midfielder has been in fine form of late, too.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the 27-year-old, who was branded a ‘flop’ from the outset
Fred cites his inability to speak English as a key factor behind his loneliness in Manchester
‘Paul Pogba, me and other players have erupted as Manchester United erupted,’ Fred says. ‘Paul was always saying that he wanted to do more, to play more, to win more and we see that in training. There is a lot of talent in him and we see it every day. But I have to include our leader, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, when I talk about the club because he is a guy who knows how to get into the players’ minds, their skin, making us play better and I grew in confidence.
‘He did not say a lot, but I became a starter, kept playing, and I feel that it was his trust that made it possible.’
United have been in sensational form over the past three months, losing just once in the Premier League – Wednesday’s shock defeat by Sheffield United in which Fred, perhaps not coincidentally, was an unused substitute. Although they crashed out of the Champions League and lost to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup semi-finals, you have to go back to November 1 for their last loss before Wednesday – and that was against Saturday evening’s opponents Arsenal.
However, the arrival of Bruno Fernandes last January has brought the midfielder out of his shell
They are now right in the title race – one point behind leaders Manchester City – which few thought likely back when they lost to the Gunners. And for Fred, everything has become brighter, reminding him of his days playing football with his friends in the street. He has felt that happiness again.
Fred’s family were not well off when he was a child but he credits his parents for making his dream come true. First, by having food on the table every day and then by investing in him as a football player.
‘I am the kind of guy who you’ll always see smiling,’ he says. ‘My childhood was like this. I had a lot of fun. We had a bad environment, but we also learned how to cope with it. Sometimes when we were playing football, we would hear gunshots around and then we had to hide.
‘It was never too close. Nothing bad happened to me or any of my friends, but it builds you to be able to face everything.
Fred describes himself as a positive and happy person around the dressing room at United
‘Now, I think of going back to the national team, of conquering more with the Brazil squad. I went to one World Cup, but I want more and that desire has grown and evolved a lot this season.’
Fred was part of manager Tite’s squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia but did not make an appearance. He has not played for Brazil since a friendly against Saudi Arabia in October 2018, at the beginning of his United career. He was an unused substitute for the next game against Argentina, but has been unable to add to his 11 caps.
His immediate ambitions, however, concern Manchester United and their fight for a first Premier League title since 2013.
‘It’s about building a legacy,’ he says. ‘Because I was called a flop ever since I got here, my only intention is to be part of Manchester United’s history.
The Brazilian believes that Paul Pogba and himself have ‘erupted’ for the Red Devils this season
The 27-year-old says manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows how to get the best out of his side
‘I have many things to give, many games to play and many titles to win. To be honest, I think we have a team to play against everyone. This year, the title race seems to be one of the most hotly contested and the Premier League is on our mind, of course, but we don’t forget the FA Cup or the Europa League. We are all in.’
As Fred’s footballing fortunes have improved, his native Brazil has suffered badly from the global pandemic. The Covid-related death toll has soared beyond 200,000 as president Jair Bolsonaro resisted lockdown measures. There has been chaos in some regions, including Manaus, in the Amazon, where there was a shortage of oxygen and respirators for patients.
‘Being in lockdown is not good, but it is necessary,’ Fred says. ‘It was something that we did not expect but we have to adapt. Brazil should have stronger measures against the virus.
‘I understand many workers have to be on the street every day to earn their money but we have to save as many lives as possible.
‘Only someone who lost a loved one knows how it feels. My brother got the virus and suffered through it. Thank God he is fine now. But that is not the normal case, unfortunately.’
Fred is not one of those players who regularly takes to social media but he is prepared to add his voice to those who have spoken out on social issues during the pandemic, such as United team-mate Marcus Rashford and Everton striker Richarlison.
Fred is targeting a return to the fold for Brazil having not appeared since October 2018
‘These two guys are great on and off the field,’ he says. ‘Marcus is fighting for the country, for its people, and using his voice to say what people without space have been trying to say for ages.
‘In Brazil, Richarlison does the same and that is admirable. We, as players, have the possibility to speak out, to use our voice, and make people hear it.
‘When people hear a footballer speaking, they can think about it and maybe even reconsider the prejudices they have.’
At Arsenal on Saturday evening, Fred will face two of his good friends and compatriots, Willian and David Luiz. They have been together many times in the colours of Brazil and the friendships have evolved since they all came to England.
The midfielder is also eyeing top honours with United as he looks to build a legacy at the club
Pre-lockdown they would meet for dinner if they were together in London or Manchester. Fred’s wife, Monique, is a close friend of Willian’s wife, Vanessa.
‘David Luiz is a very funny guy and Willian is too but, of course, friendships stay off the field when we are playing. We want to win. We need to win. These rivalries that United have with Arsenal, Liverpool are always important.’
And not forgetting the rivalry with the Premier League leaders.
‘Especially the one with Manchester City because it is always strong and it makes the city stop,’ Fred says. ‘Everyone is watching the games, some wearing red and some wearing blue. We know they have very good players and so do the other teams such as Leicester. They are consistent and we have kept our consistency going, too.’
Something more to smile about for Fred.