Jose Fonte, baby

Despite being 31, Southampton's Jose Fonte is in the infancy of his footballing stardom

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SOUTHAMPTON, England –  As he strode into the reception of Southampton’s training complex in a tight black T-shirt and grey baggy sweatpants, Jose Fonte exuded an air of relaxed confidence. The Portuguese defender is on top of his game, the team he captains are flying high in the Premier League and the sun is shining on the city he calls “England’s Monaco.”

Jose Miguel da Rocha Fonte, to give him his full name, is one of those phenomena that sport throws our way once in a while. He’s a late bloomer who has enjoyed a meteoric rise in recent years, and Southampton’s 31-year-old captain isn’t about to curb his enthusiasm or expectations anytime soon.

Up and down the land, “Jose Fonte, baby! Jose Fonte woaaaaaah!” is sung by Saints fans to the tune of “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League. That chant has grown in stature and frequency in recent years.

From growing up playing in the same youth team as Cristiano Ronaldo at Sporting Lisbon (more on that later) to finally representing his nation alongside the superstar 15 years later, Fonte’s rise almost resembles a fairytale.

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After arriving in England in 2007 from Portugal, the dominant center back first played at Crystal Palace and then dropped down to League One (English soccer’s third-tier) with Southampton in 2010 to begin an incredible journey for both the club and Fonte. From there Fonte was named in the League One Team of the Year, guided Saints to two straight promotions into the Premier League, has established himself in the PL, gained his first call-up to the Portuguese national team in his 30s and is now captain of a Saints squad who are on the cusp of securing their best ever Premier League finish.

Currently enjoying what he described as the best season of his career, Fonte is widely tipped to be included in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year when it is announced on Sunday.  Even if he isn’t, the Portuguese international defender has enjoyed a breakout year leading Saints’ backline which, at the time of writing, holds the best defensive record in the PL with just 24 goals conceded during the first 33 PL games of the 2014-15 season.

Back in 2010, in his very first interview with Southampton’s in-house video channel, Fonte explained that even though he had dropped down from the Championship to League One, he expected to be in the Premier League quicker with Saints than Palace. That gamble paid off, and Fonte smiled when reminded of that first interview he gave as a Saints player over five years ago.

“I did … In the first interview I said I would be in the Premier League quicker with Southampton than if I stayed at Palace,” Fonte explained. “What made me make that decision was having seen the plans and speaking with the chairman at the time. He showed me his plans and what he had in mind. He bought some great players, we had Alan Pardew as manager at a League One club. It shows where you want to go. I saw the ambition. I saw the training ground facilities were being built. I saw the great stadium that we have and the fans and how big this club is. Not so long before I signed they were in the Premier League. This is a Premier League club. I knew at the time we had a great chance to be there again if money was invested and fortunately for us Markus Liebherr and his family have invested the money. The results are there to see.”

Those results, on the pitch, have blown everyone away this season, as many expected Saints to struggle to stay in the top flight after a mass exodus last summer saw the likes of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers leave. That left Fonte as one of the sole survivors from Saints’ League One days and he was quickly installed as Saints’ new skipper to help steady the ship when Dutch manager Ronald Koeman arrived as boss.

Now, with Southampton sitting inside the top seven with five games of the season to go, Fonte revealed that Koeman’s first few days in charge were influential in shaping Saints’ best-ever season in the Premier League.

“We all had doubts and worries but the manager, when he arrived he showed a lot of confidence. Not only in me but all of the other players,” Fonte said. “[Koeman] said, ‘Trust in me and believe that we are going to achieve something good here.’ And basically, that was it. He was very calm, like he is, and was the composed, collected man that he is,” Fonte says while smiling. “He showed a lot of confidence in us, himself and his staff. It was basically that. He was just cool about it.”

If Koeman is cool and collected, Fonte exudes a similar demeanor but is also extremely focused on achieving greatness with Saints. Potentially finishing in the top six and qualifying for European soccer via a league position for the first time in the PL era isn’t enough. The man from Penafiel wants more than that, but admits playing in the Europa League would be a huge achievement for Southampton.

“It would be massive. It is another step in the right direction and where we want to go,” Fonte said. “This is a very ambitious club and team. Being in Europe would be another major step. After that, we want to go even higher. We just want to be a bigger club, year by year. Compete for trophies and compete in the UEFA Champions League. Hopefully one day, we can win the league.”

Former Southampton, Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers and England defender Graeme Le Saux has watched on with interest as his former club have surged through the leagues and are now challenging the upper echelons of the Premier League. Le Saux, who won the Premier League with Blackburn back in 1995, believes Fonte’s reading of the game has improved substantially.

“His reading of the game is very good, and for every center back at the highest level within the Premier League, they need to read the game ever so well,” Le Saux told NBC SportsWorld. “It is important they have leaders at the back as well. I have never seen him shouting, screaming or looking really angry but he looks composed and controlled. He has an authority about him with the way he plays. He leads by example and he is not frightened to get hurt and make a tackle but the fact that he’s not been injured all season suggests he knows when to tackle and when not to tackle. He reads the game really well and understands when to step out and make a tackle and when to hold his line.”

As Saints go from strength to strength with their Portuguese man-of-war leading the backline, Fonte’s own development has been astonishing.

At the age of 28 he had never played in the PL, like most of Southampton’s players when they were promoted to the top-flight in 2012. After initially struggling to adapt to the step up from the Championship, Fonte has flourished of late. He is now known across the league as one of the most dominant center backs — even if up close he isn’t a bulking mass of muscle, though he is incredibly toned and seems to be built to endure the rigors of the PL after missing just one game through suspension all season — and he puts his late blossoming down to a mixture of factors. But being surrounded by quality teammates is at the top of the list.

“It is a journey and you need to keep learning and keep trying to be better every time you come to training. You have to keep trying to improve every time,” Fonte says as he hits the back of his right hand into his left to hammer home the point. “When you play against League One opposition, you know that you are maybe not a League One player but that you are almost at the same level. Then when you step into the Championship, you have to up your game and work harder to do better. When you play against better opposition it makes you a better player.”

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On Saturday, Southampton host Tottenham Hotspur as former coach Mauricio Pochettino returns to St Mary’s for the first time since leaving last summer after the mass exodus threatened to derail Fonte and Southampton’s progress. What kind of reception can Pochettino expect back at Southampton?

“I tried to stay away from that. We are both professionals. He will obviously want to win but we also want to win. He had his time here and he did a good job but we move on,” says Fonte. “We were lucky enough to have a great manager who succeeded him. Ronald came in and when everybody expected us to be fighting relegation he managed to pull the team together and make us fight with the big dogs. It is fantastic to play under Ronald and we have to give credit to him and his staff for what he did this summer and continues to do. Also, we cannot deny that Mauricio did a great job and was a great manager for us.”

Le Saux agrees that certain players flourish under certain managers and although Pochettino left Saints under a cloud last summer, his role in Fonte’s rise cannot be underestimated.

“With the right kind of leadership, players can reach their potential. It is not always one manager who will get the best out of you, it is not a science. It is a relationship,” Le Saux explained. “Clearly what Mauricio Pochettino and then Koeman have done for players like Fonte, they have made them better players. His teammates have made him a better player, so that is another big clue to the improvement.”

Fonte — who has a passion for fast cars, Formula 1 in particular, and is a huge NBA fan (he follows LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers closely) — then singled out one of his former teammates as having a big impact on him finding a whole new level of performance over the past 12 months.

“When we got to the Premier League, which is a big step, I was fortunate enough to have some great teammates who made me improve,” Fonte said, rubbing the side of his face with his right hand, showing off an impressively tattoed right arm in the process. “For example, when Dejan Lovren came into the club, he made me work harder because I saw how great a player he was. He then inspired me to work even harder and to be better so I could start every game because I knew competition was very good. … I just wanted to belong at this level and show I could compete against them. I was driven by that and trying to be the best I can be.”

Le Saux feels that Fonte has moved on from his partnership with Lovren and has surpassed the play of his former teammate.

Jose Fonte defending for Crystal Palace in 2009. (Getty Images)

“I have certainly been impressed with Fonte’s form,” says Le Saux. “If I was a manager and I wanted to pick a player, he is reliable, clearly consistent and he is one of those players that as a manager you would say, ‘Right, who do I put alongside Fonte?’ Not, ‘Do I pick him or not?’ He is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Where I have been most impressed is that he has adapted to this season without his partner from last year [Lovren] and when you look at how he’s done compared to Lovren at Liverpool … they’ve had very different seasons. It has not been such a pleasant season for Lovren.”

In recent weeks praise for Fonte has continued to pour in as Sky Sports pundit and former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville named him in his team of the year, as did current Chelsea captain John Terry.

“Fonte has been a revelation this season and has been a major reason behind Ronald Koeman’s side’s success,” Neville exclaimed. “Saints have one of the strongest defenses in the Premier League and Fonte has been hugely important for them.”

Fonte smiled warmly and looked to his left while nodding his head as I asked about his chances of being in the PFA Team of the Year.

Has this season been his best with Saints?

“For sure, this is the best season in my career,” Fonte said. “What I have been able to do in the club and in the team allowed me to be in the national team. I just feel good at the moment. I feel calm and have confidence in my ability. I know what I can do and I have more experience in the game where a few years ago I wasn’t quite sure. I just feel in a great place and it is a credit to all of my teammates that have helped me. All the managers that I had that allowed me to grow and be a better man and a better player. Also, my family that helps me every day. There’s a lot of things that make you have this special season. I just hope that I can keep going and keep improving.”

That relentless appetite to improve and progress drives Fonte. You can see the desire in his eyes. His friendly smile masks his extreme focus, but when you sit down with him, you see a man who is intense about succeeding and hell-bent on leading Southampton to glory. That said, it isn’t lost on Fonte that he and Saints have achieved so much over such a short period of time in their rise from the depths of the third-tier to challenging for a top four spot in the Premier League.

As everyone else stares on at Saints’ meteoric rise in amazement and marvels at their world-class training facilities and renowned academy, Fonte had more faith than most that this day would arrive.

“It has certainly been a great journey and a journey I kind of expected because of the ambition and the philosophy which was shown to me by the chairman at the time, Nicola Cortese, the manager at the time, Alan Pardew,” Fonte said. “I suspected this club would be in the Premier League very soon. Yes, it has been a great journey and we have achieved great things, but it is a great job from everyone, not only the players. The staff, the managers, everyone involved with the club should be very proud because we have done something amazing in a very short space of time.”

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Nestled in the tiny village of Marchwood on the edge of the New Forest, Southampton’s Staplewood training ground has seen a $50 million overhaul in recent years. It now boasts some of the best facilities in the Premier League and is still improving to this day. As I wandered around on my way to speak to Fonte, a new indoor dome was being erected, while coaches from all over England were attending a course to try and learn how Saints keep churning out top youngsters year after year. That next batch of academy products were all smiles on a sunny day in southern England as they and academy coach Anthony Limbrick greeted myself warmly. In fact, every first team player who wandered out of the dressing room area also exuded a friendly persona.

There’s a lot of smiling going on at Southampton right now and according to Fonte, why wouldn’t there be?

“I feel great. We are fortunate to have a city that really loves the players and embraces the players and makes us feel welcome,” Fonte said as he gazed out of the window as the April sun shone brightly. “We are in a quiet place, a lot of sunshine as you can see … compared to the rest of the country. We must have the most days of sunshine. This is the English version of Monaco! We are only one hour and 20 minutes from London, so it a great place to be and play football.”

Le Saux spent the final few seasons of his career at Saints and knows what the club is all about after being born and raised on the Channel Islands of Jersey, where Southampton is the nearest major city on the south coast of England. Le Saux also knows that Fonte’s development has not been by chance.

“He has learned,” Le Saux said of Fonte. “That is all any manager can ask from a player is that they keep learning and to take instructions on board and to learn and keep wanting to get better. He is clearly a great example of that.”

So, just how has Fonte become one of the best center backs in the PL? This season he ranks tenth in interceptions, making an average of 3.1 per game, and Saints’ defense has allowed the second fewest number of shots on goal, while leading the league in tackles made. The Portuguese defender loves to stride out of the back with the ball or step high to engage opposition strikers with an aerial challenge or a tackle, as those numbers for interceptions prove. He usually takes the first knock, after which one of his central defensive partners this season — sometimes Maya Yoshida or Florin Gardos but more often than not the sensational Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld, on loan from Atletico Madrid — then provides cover. Fonte believes the key to Saints’ incredible defensive record of 15 clean sheets in 33 PL games and a league best 24 goals conceded comes down to a collective will to defend from front to back. The entire side is focused on defending and Fonte’s leadership, coupled with Koeman’s esteemed past as a flamboyant central defender for Barcelona and the Dutch national team, seems to have rubbed off on everyone.

“First of all, it’s how the manager sets up the team,” Fonte explains. “The manager was a defender himself and he likes to be really compact at the back and defend well. In all honesty we defend as one. Starting from the striker, they do their job, then we have two great midfielders … not only two but the two that play there in front of the center backs, they do an amazing job at protecting us and we have two great full backs. … And then we have not only one but two great goalkeepers as you’ve seen in recent weeks. It is [working] collectively and everyone has this mindset of being hard to break down. … When it clicks, we show that we are good.”

This season Fonte has also improved his distribution, something which Le Saux has watched closely and is one of the reasons why he ranks Fonte as one of the top four central defenders in the PL this season along with Terry, Chris Smalling and Laurent Koscielny.

“Fonte doesn’t just win the ball. He tries to find someone with the ball whether he’s going up for a header or intercepts the ball,” Le Saux said. “His first thought is to find a teammate rather than just clear it. That’s another level of play from a good center back. If you look at the best center backs like John Terry, Vincent Kompany, they keep the ball alive even when they have won it. It is not just about winning it, it’s about keeping the ball alive and how quickly you can convert defense into attack. Games that I’ve seen him I have been very impressed at that awareness and simplicity of pass and the fact that he respects that it’s his job.”

Could that improved play out of the back have something to do with Koeman coming in as boss? Quite possibly.

“Imagine having Ronald Koeman as your manager when you are a center back?” Le Saux said. “What Fonte must have learned from him… Southampton, like a lot of teams now, they want to keep the ball alive and are not happy just clearing it down into the channel. They want to go back to the goalkeeper if they can in that situation. I think that is where the game has changed from when I was playing. Definitely. Players recycle the ball more in terms of now they will come out, go back to the goalkeeper and out the other side.”

Fonte has always believed in his ability and he knew he was a good player. However, a call-up to the Portuguese national team seemed destined to elude him. Until six months ago, when it finally arrived.

At the age of 30, Fonte was named in Portugal’s squad for the first time. After a long, long wait to represent his nation he made his debut at Old Trafford in a friendly against Argentina last November when he lined up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and defeated Lionel Messi and company, 1-0.

“It was worth the wait … It is one of those days that you will never forget. You work a lifetime to achieve this,” Fonte said. “You think ‘it might not come’ and it might be too late and then finally it comes. It was just a relief, you know? All of the work that I put in and all of the hope, year after year, month after month I was being denied and not being selected. I kept going and working and was not giving up. Fortunately it came last year when I was a 30-year-old. I had my first game against Argentina. Ronaldo vs. Messi. The two best players in the world and we beat them 1-0. Clean sheet. “

Making his late ascendancy into the national team even more special was the fact that Fonte’s younger brother, Rui, was also called in by Fernando Santos. Now he and his brother, who is contracted to Benfica, hope to line up together at the 2016 European Championships in France next summer.

“Again, another special day. My little brother, only 24 years old, we were in the squad for the Portuguese national team together,” Fonte said, shaking his head and giving his biggest grin yet. “With all due respect, it is a great football nation. We are always at the top and it is very hard to get there. We should be proud and we are. It just gives us even more motivation to work harder to keep our place there, which is difficult.”

Jose Fonte (Getty Images)

Le Saux believes that Fonte provides the Portuguese national team with something their defense has not had for a while: stability.

“If he can sustain his place in that team then he could bring some much needed composure and reliability to that Portuguese defense,” Le Saux says. “They take flair to a whole new level. He can have a really positive influence because the Portuguese team, historically, they have lost control quite regularly as a team and their discipline is quite poor. If he can take that example of what he’s done for Southampton into the Portuguese national team then he is going to be a big asset for them.”

When it comes to soccer idols growing up in his hometown of Penafiel and Lisbon from the age of eight, the Saints’ captain didn’t have anybody in particular he worshipped, even though he supported Sporting Lisbon.

“I didn’t really have one guy or one poster on my wall and used to say, ‘I love this guy.’ I didn’t,” Fonte said. “I just kept taking small things from everyone and tried to see the best in every player who used to play in my position and I used to take advice from people who I felt knew what they were talking about.”

Maybe the aversion to idol worship was because Fonte’s father played in the Portuguese top-flight over 300 times as a left back and represented Portugal in the 1970s. Fonte calls his Dad a “very good player and a very good teacher as well.” Both he and his brother have made the most of the soccer talent in their gene pool.

The elder Fonte isn’t the only “very good” player Jose grew up with, however, as he has also known a certain global superstar since he was just a teenager. Fonte and Cristiano Ronaldo cut their teeth in the Sporting youth setup together and, according to Fonte, it was clear that Ronaldo was destined for stardom from the start.

“We played together when I was 17 and he [Ronaldo] was 16, already playing for the year above himself,” Fonte explained. “We played together that year and you could see straightaway that he was different. He has always been different. His winning mentality and wanting to be the best set him apart.”

Fonte then revealed some incredible examples of the lengths the reigning three-time World Player of the Year went to as a 16-year-old to stay ahead of the curve.

“He works incredibly hard and people don’t appreciate what he had to do to be where he is,” Fonte explained. “He had to work very hard since he was 16. I remember him doing push-ups in the shower, for example, after training. Trying to do 50 push-ups more than anybody else. I remember him going to the gym at midnight. When everybody else was asleep, he was in the gym. It is his mentality and trying to be the best that sets him apart, no doubt.”

Fifteen years later, Fonte and Ronaldo are teammates for the Portuguese national team. The former revealed what an honor it is to play with and be captained by Ronaldo.

“It is just an honor and a great pleasure to share the same pitch and see the greatness. To see how good he is and the difference between him and the others,” Fonte said. “He is fantastic. You see him and the others… it makes you think about the level you need to be at. How much you need to work to compete with him.”

So, is Ronaldo the best player on the planet right now?

“I am biased; I am obviously going to say Ronaldo because I really believe that what he had to do and work, the goals he has scored for Real Madrid is ridiculous,” Fonte said. “I just saw today he has 288 games for Real Madrid, 300 goals and 100 assists … ridiculous numbers. He changed his game as well, he evolved. He has improved his heading and now he is a master of heading the ball and scores a lot of goals with his head, he scores with his left foot like it is his right, you don’t really know the difference. He used to do a lot of tricks and dribbles and not be productive and now he is a goalscoring machine.”

Besides the current stunning campaign and playing next to Ronaldo on the Portugese national team, what lies in store for Fonte’s future? This is where the story swings stateside, as his close friend and former Southampton teammate Guly do Prado has made his way to Major League Soccer and signed with the Chicago Fire last summer. Could Fonte make a similar switch to North America in a few years?

“I would absolutely love to go to America. I love America,” Fonte said. “I would like to play in MLS. I even talk and joke with Guly and said, ‘You know, set me up a place there to get a contract in a few years.’ But yeah, I now follow the MLS because of the Chicago Fire and it is something that my family and I would love to do, to play a few years in America and experience that. It would be amazing. New York, LA, Chicago … Whatever, it would be good.”

Whatever lies in store for Fonte’s future, his tale of taking a long and winding route to become one of the best central defenders in the Premier League has already become the stuff of legends in England’s Monaco.