The tradition, the passion, the stars. And, of course, the barra bravas, the fierce fans of football teams in Argentina, that fuel the excitement and the outstanding atmosphere of the sport. It is a match made in heaven and a reason why football is more than a sport, it is a religion in Argentina, with a group of Diego Maradona fans even creating their own church, dedicated to the former Number 10 of the “Albiceleste” team.
This is the ecosystem in which Enzo Fernandez was born and bred, as the new star of the Argentina national team is starting to make his mark in the world of football. He is widely considered to be one of the most talented midfielders in the world and has made great strides at Qatar 2022, scoring a decisive goal for the South American team in the group phase match against Mexico, which Argentina won, 2-0.
His ascension to greatness is difficult to grasp, especially as only one year ago he was loaned by his parent club, River Plate, to Defensa y Justicia, a team coached by former international striker, Hernan Crespo. But only one year later, he is scouted by the best clubs in the world, is a first team choice for Argentina and has been delivering excellent performances at the highest of level.
Fernandez’s destiny was always written to become a footballer. His father, Raul, loved football so much and had a favourite player – Uruguay’s Enzo Francescoli, who scored 17 times for Uruguay’s national team, but had 67 goals in 120 matches for Raul’s beloved River Plate.
When his son was born, Raul knew that he had to be a footballer. And he named the little boy Enzo, hoping that the talent will rub on him. Since he was five years old, Fernandez was taken to River Plate and spent 16 years there, becoming increasingly talented.
Making a name for himself in the younger age categories, Fernandez finally broke into the first team after a training session of the Under-19 side watched by River’s coach, Marcelo Gallardo.
He was so impressed by Fernandez and his excellent midfielder skills that he called him up immediately to the first side making his debut on 4 March 2020, in a Copa Libertadores match against LDU Quito.
But without big chances to feature prominently for River, Fernandez was loaned to Defensa y Justicia, where he started making his mark and thriving under the approach of former Argentina striker Hernan Crespo.
“Coach Gallardo called me and told me there was this chance. He explained that it was going to help me to have more experience in the first league, to gain confidence, to have more games. I didn’t hesitate. My expectation was to play at River, although this is a nice opportunity to show myself and think about the future,” said Fernandez.
His excellent games meant that European sides were going to pay attention. After only 20 matches played at River after returning from his loan, Portuguese giants Benfica paid €18 million for his transfer.
“He is a good player, he was with us. His transfer is significant, he is showing how he can play and logically we are looking at him,” said Argentina’s manager, Lionel Scaloni, about Fernandez’s move to Benfica.
Only a few months later, Fernandez made his debut for Argentina’s national team in a friendly match against Honduras, which underlined once again his huge potential. It was only a question about when the future star was going to break through.
And it was precisely at Qatar 2022 when Fernandez stepped up to the occasion. After a 1-2 loss against Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the group phase, Argentina reshuffled the pack and Fernandez became a clear starter.
He was excellent in midfield, controlling the game and even going up the pitch to try and score goals. He did that against Mexico and had a post in the quarter-finals against the Netherlands, where he also missed a penalty in the final shoot-out.
But that did not matter, especially as Argentina progressed to the semi-finals. And Fernandez is not only a star on the pitch, he is also living the dream, playing alongside one of his idols, Lionel Messi.
“To play with Leo brings me enormous joy. It’s a dream come true. I’ve been dreaming about the possibility of playing alongside him since last year. It’s all I’ve dreamed about. Today I was able to and I really enjoyed it,” Fernandez said.
At only 21 years old, Fernandez has a specific skillset that makes him the prototype of a modern midfielder. He can pass, he can tackle, he can break defences with pinpoint passes. A box-to-box midfielder who also does not shy of physical contact, Fernandez can do it all.
While he has only eight caps for Argentina, he will likely be the engine of this team going forward. Somewhere, Raul is proud. His son can be even better than his idol, Enzo Francescoli.