The remarkable rise to a global star of Enzo Fernandez
Enzo Fernandez’s season began in February and has thus far encompassed league campaigns in Argentina and Portugal, a triumphant World Cup in Qatar, and now, as he approaches 12 months without a break, a record-breaking transfer to Chelsea.
The 22-year-old has made 58 appearances for two clubs and his country since River Plate’s 1-0 home defeat to Union Santa Fe on Feb 12 last year. He played his last game for River, that giant of Argentine club football, on July 7. His €10 million move to Benfica was announced a week later and he went straight into pre-season in Lisbon. He scored on his debut for Benfica in a Champions League qualifier against FC Midtjylland on Aug 2 and then again on his Portuguese league debut three days later.
He has clocked up 35 games since then, including seven for Argentina including the World Cup final. The Fifa best young player of the tournament in Qatar. Now he finds himself the subject of a British record transfer at more than £106 million. What do those who know him make of Chelsea’s new Argentinian World Cup winner and a player with a price like none the English game has known?
The former Portugal captain, now a coach and Portuguese television pundit, Oceano Cruz, who has watched Fernandez’s impact on the Liga Portugal closely, is in no doubt that Chelsea have signed a leading talent. “They are buying the best player in the Portuguese league,” Cruz tells Telegraph Sport. “When he came from Argentina, he had no vacation, he just went straight in. We saw from his first minute that Benfica had done a great job to get this player.”
Fernandez made an immediate impact on his debut and followed that with a goal against Arouca in the Liga. He stayed in the team. Cruz says that one of Fernandez’s great strengths at Benfica, also evident during Argentina’s triumphant World Cup run, is his versatility in midfield. “He’s a central midfielder but he’s more of a complete midfielder,” Cruz says. “He’s like the English say, ‘a box-to-box midfielder’. He can play more offensively as a No 8 in a 4-3-3 formation. He can find solutions up front and make the passes.”
As well as his attacking capabilities, what has caught the eye in Portugal, in the short time that Fernandez has been there, has been his willingness to defend as well. Cruz, himself a midfielder in the 1980s and 1990s, says that Fernandez is primarily an attacking player but has other elements to his midfield game. “It’s very difficult to compare him,” Cruz says. “He can do everything in midfield. He can be like [N’Golo] Kante defensively even though offensively he’s much better.
“You don’t normally find players like that who can do both, defensive and offensive. He can turn a defensive position into an attack with a single pass. The question of whether he is expensive or not depends on the quality of the player and what he can produce. Sometimes you buy a player for €10 million and he plays zero games – that’s an expensive player. I think it’ll be a great deal for Chelsea.”
The coach Nelson Verissimo was among the staff at Benfica for ten years and had two stints as caretaker manager. Appointed manager of Liga Portugal club Estoril in the summer, his team came up against Benfica and Fernandez at home in the league in November. Estoril were beaten 5-1 by a Benfica side who have lost just one game, to Braga, in all competitions this season.
“It was a great challenge because Enzo is a player with great qualities,” Verissimo tells Telegraph Sport. “He can play it short or long with constant variations and he is a very quick player. One of the many concerns we had was controlling his attacking movements in the space between the lines and his capacity to shoot from mid-distance.”
Fernandez’s effect on Benfica this season, Verissimo says, was “enormous”. “In my opinion, the success that Benfica are having this season is very much based on the midfield pair Enzo and Florentino. They complement each other very well. Florentino is more of a defensive midfielder and Enzo, with his ability to be everywhere, but in a sensible way.”
Born in the San Martin district in the north of Buenos Aires, one of four brothers, Fernandez, was named after his father’s Raul’s favourite player, the Uruguay international and River great - and now the club's manager - Enzo Francescoli. Young Enzo played at the local Club La Recova and was affiliated to River from the age of five.
The academy director of the time was Gustavo Grossi who first met Enzo when he was in the Under-14s and coached him for around four years. Grossi says that Fernandez was developed into a midfielder who can play any position in the middle - centrally or wide.
“When I was a young player, I faced [Juan Sebastian] Veron many times and I find Enzo very similar to him,” Grossi told Telegraph Sport. “Veron started as a holding midfielder that was then turned into a No 10 and finally became a midfielder that could perform any role in midfield. Obviously, a lot of things have changed in football, but Enzo reminds me a lot of Veron. Perhaps Enzo’s passing is more aggressive and Veron was more dangerous with his long-distance shooting, but they are very alike as players.”
'I don’t want to remain in the comfort zone'
Now the youth football director of the Brazilian Serie A side Internacional, Grossi says that Fernandez was not from a wealthy background and, as his career started to take off, he demonstrated generosity to team-mates.
“One episode that I find important to mention, was when Enzo was already playing for the Under-20s national team and doing better financially. That was a team-mate of his whom the club didn’t rate very highly and, for that reason, he didn’t qualify to live in the club dormitory. Enzo invited him to live with his family. That gave his friend a better chance of making it to the first team. It’s not something you see other athletes doing every day.”
Fernandez’s decision to go on loan in 2020 to the decidedly unfashionable Buenos Aires club Defensa y Justicia, Grossi says, has since influenced other young River players seeking to build their careers. It was at Defensa, managed by the Argentine great, Hernan Crespo, that Fernandez won the club’s first ever continental trophy, the Copa Sudamericana.
“I remember Enzo’s words very well,” Grossi says. “He said: ‘I don’t want to remain here [at River] in the comfort zone. I know I’m a kid, but I want to leave. It’s a small team but I want to show that I’m capable of wearing River’s No 5 shirt.’
“One thing that it’s worth mentioning is that he was part of an age group at River that wasn’t particularly successful. He captained a team that people didn’t follow very closely because they wouldn’t win titles every season. He’s now the most expensive Argentine footballer of all-time, but, if you have a look at his formative years, you’ll see that he didn’t lift many trophies back then.”
It has been an astonishing rise for Fernandez. This time last year he was a very promising prospect in Argentinian football of which much was expected, although never this quickly. One year on he has played alongside Lionel Messi in one of the great sporting triumphs of the era and Fernandez's value - as well as the expectation upon him - has run beyond anything anticipated.