Enzo Fernandez: A midfielder with a warrior’s heart who won ‘Young Player Award’ | Sunday Observer

Enzo Fernandez: A midfielder with a warrior’s heart who won ‘Young Player Award’

15 January, 2023
Enzo Fernandez
Enzo Fernandez

Enzo Fernandez is a professional footballer who plays for the Argentina national team and Primeira Liga club Benficaas as a central midfielder. He is one of the most brilliant and gifted midfielders in the world right now. He was chosen to represent Argentina at the 2022 FIFA World Cup and won the “Young Player Award” as Argentina captured their third FIFA World Cup.

He is an academy graduate of the Argentine club River Plate. He made his debut for the senior side in 2019 before playing two seasons on loan for Defensa y Justicia, another Argentine club. With Defensa y Justicia, Fernandez won 2020 Copa Sudamericana and 2021 Recopa Sudamericana, before returning to River Plate to win 2021 Argentine Primera Division.

Following his return, Fernandez established himself as an integral player for the club. He joined Portuguese Primeira Liga side Benfica in the summer of 2022. Fernandez represented his country at under 18 level, before making his senior international debut in 2022.

Player Profile

During his career, Fernandez has been deployed in a deep-seated playmaking role as a central midfielder, responsible for breaking up play, dictating the tempo and recycling possession, although he is also capable of playing in a more advanced role as an attacking midfielder. He usually makes quick short passes, accurate long passes, and lobbed balls.

He is very combative in his midfield duels, protects the space and his backline efficiently, he possesses a good passing range, excellent vision, and elevated levels of accuracy, which is very purposeful in his midfield actions and can dribble into dangerous territory or out of it to devastating effect. He thrives in receiving the ball in tight spaces and is very press-resistant due to his wonderful low sense of gravity, balance, and flexibility in his body movements.

He excels at quick short passes, passing to break lines or to play through attackers running to space, but also passing in the means of keeping possession to move around and tire opposition shapes. Fernandez excels out of possession, always looking to get into the right positions to stop of opposition attacks, disrupting moves, whilst also being in the right place at the right time to intercept passes.

In addition, he is a good dribbler and can move the ball forward through his passing. He prefers operating centrally but can sometimes be seen in the left half-space usually in a partnership with Florentino Luis.

Birth and Growth

Born in San Martín, Buenos Aires, to Raul and Marta on January17, 2001, Enzo Jeremias Fernandez has four brothers, Seba, Rodri, Maxi, and Gonza. Fernandez is named after three-time Copa America winner and former River Plate player Enzo Francescoli, due to his father’s fascination with the Uruguayan footballer.

Fernandez was introduced to football at an early age, playing for a local side called Club La Recova from 2005, before joining River Plate in 2006, aged five. After progressing through the ranks for thirteen years, Fernandez was promoted into the club’s first team by manager Marcelo Gallardo on January 27, 2019, in a 3–1 home loss to Patronato in the Primera Division.

He made his first-team debut on March 4, 2020, replacing Santiago Sosa in the 75th minute of a 3–0 loss to L.D.U. Quito in the Copa Libertadores. In the weeks prior, he scored once, in the 6–1 thrashing of Libertad, in four games at the 2020 Under 20 Copa Libertadores in Paraguay.

Senior Career

Despite being sporadically used at River Plate, Fernandez’s manager advised him to leave the club on loan, to continue his development. In August 2020, Fernandez was loaned to fellow top-flight club Defensa y Justicia. He made his debut for the Halcon on September 18, 2020, by manager Hernan Crespo in a 3–0 win over Delfín in the Copa Libertadores.

Despite initially not being a starter, his performances impressed his manager and eventually he earned a place in the team, helping the club win the 2020 Copa Sudamericana, starting in the 3–0 win over fellow Argentinian side Lanus in the final, winning his first career title. He had fourteen appearances for Defensa y Justicia during 2020/2021.

After impressing on loan, Fernandez returned to River Plate, during the season at the request of manager Marcelo Gallardo, making his return on July 15, 2021, in the first leg of Copa Libertadores round of sixteen, featuring in the 1–1 home draw to fellow Argentinian side Argentinos Juniors. He immediately became a starter and on August 14, he scored his first goal for the club and provided an assist in a 2–0 win over Velez Sarsfield in the Primera Division.

On December 20, he agreed to a contract extension to 2025. Following a promising start in the 2022 season, he scored eight goals and provided six assists in nineteen games, Fernandez was named the best active footballer in Argentina, being subsequently scouted by a number of established European teams. He had ten goals for River Plate in forty appearances during 2019/2022.

On June 23, 2022, River Plate reached an agreement with Primeira Liga team Benfica for the transfer of Fernandez for a €10 million fee for 75% of his economic rights plus €8 million in add-ons, but with the player remaining at River Plate until the end of the club’s Copa Libertadores campaign. Following River Plate’s round of sixteen exit from the Copa Libertadores, on July 14, Benfica confirmed the deal, being given the number 13 shirt, previously worn by club legend Eusebio.

He made his debut for the club on August 2, scoring his first goal for the club, a half-volley from outside the penalty area, in a 4–1 home win over Midtjylland in the first leg of the 2022–23 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. He then scored in Benfica’s next matches: a 4–0 home win over Arouca in the Primeira Liga, and a 3–1 away win over Midtjylland in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round.

His impressive performances continued throughout the month and following a run of five consecutive wins and three clean sheets, he was named the Primeira Liga’s Midfielder of the Month, a feat which was repeated for the months of October and November. He had one goal in his thirteen appearances for Benfica in 2022.

At just twenty-one, Fernandez’s capacity to dictate the tempo of the game marks him out as a special talent. The youngster’s passing is crisp, incisive, and precise – his accuracy rate is 90 per cent in league matches this term and was 88 per cent during the World Cup.

International Career

On July 24, 2019, Fernandez was selected by the Argentina Under 18s manager Esteban Solari to represent his nation at the 2019 COTIF Tournament in Spain. He had two appearances.

On November 3, 2021, he was called up by Argentina national team manager Lionel Scaloni for two 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Brazil and Uruguay. He made his senior team debut on September 24, 2022, by coming on as a 64th-minute substitute for Leandro Paredes in a 3–0 win against Honduras.

The occasion saw Fernandez fulfil a lifelong ambition to play alongside his idol, Lionel Messi. “To play with Leo brings me enormous joy,” said Fernandez, in the aftermath of that game. “It’s a dream come true.” Less than three months later and Messi would be describing Fernandez as a “spectacular kid,” with the pair instrumental figures in Argentina’s world-champion side.

The FIFA Young Player Award was awarded for the first time at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and given to Germany’s Lukas Podolski. The award is given to the best player in the tournament who is at most 21 years old. For the 2022 World Cup, this meant that the player had to have been born on or after January 1, 2001.

In 2006, the election took place on FIFA’s official World Cup website with the help of The FIFA Technical Study Group. FIFA organised a survey on the Internet for users to choose the “Best Young Player” of the World Cup, between 1958 and 2002, named the best young player of each tournament. With 61% of the overall vote, the winner was Pele.

Since the award was officially handed out, Kylian Mbappe of France was the youngest player to win at nineteen years, which he did in 2018. When all winners are considered, Pele of Brazil was the youngest winner as he was only seventeen years at the 1958 tournament.

World Cup 2022

Fernandez secured his place in Lionel Scaloni’s Qatar 2022 World Cup squad following mature displays in two pre-tournament friendlies and having continued to excel for club side Benfica. His rare combination of boundless energy, immaculate technique and tactical intelligence has seen him swiftly acclimatize to European football following his move from boyhood club River Plate.

Fernandez netted his first international goal against Mexico in the group stage and made his first starts for his country at the tournament. In doing so, he became the second youngest player ever (only behind Lionel Messi) to score a World Cup goal for Argentina at 21 years, ten months, and thirteen days.

Fernandez’s ball-striking ability, of course, was memorably displayed in Argentina’s do-or-die match, when he expertly curled a shot into the top corner of Guillermo Ochoa’s net to seal a 2-0 victory.

He had come on as a substitute for Guido Rodríguez in the 57th minute, on November 26, 2022 in that game but would start every remaining match of Argentina’s triumphant World Cup campaign. He was named in the lineup for the four games leading up to the final. He assisted Julian Alvarez’s goal in the match against Poland, which Argentina won 2-0 and secured qualification to the knockout round.

On December 3, he achieved a not so famous record, becoming the youngest own goal scorer in the history of Argentina in the FIFA World Cup, in the round of sixteen match against Australia, when his attempt to block Craig Goodwin’s shot instead deflected into his team’s net as Argentina beat Australia 2–1.

After defeating Croatia 3–0 in the semi-final, Fernandez played in the final against France, where Argentina won the World Cup by a score of 4–2 on penalties. He was named best young player of the tournament. He had ten appearances for Argentina in 2022.

Dovetailing impressively with midfield colleagues Alexis Mac Allister and Rodrigo De Paul, Fernandez’s tigerish tackling and competitive spirit added intensity to La Albiceleste’s performances. Indeed, his total of twenty-two successful tackles was surpassed by only two players across the World Cup (Mateo Kovacic and Achraf Hakimi).

Fernandez was at his all-action best in the showpiece final as Argentina overwhelmed France in the opening 70 minutes of the contest. Kylian Mbappe would then turn the game on its head as the match developed into an all-time classic, but Fernandez’s Argentina dug deep into their reserves of resilience and determination to eventually triumph in the most dramatic circumstances.

The midfielder’s noteworthy influence on this Argentina team is highlighted by the fact he was one of only five members of Scaloni’s side to play the full 120 minutes of the final. Moments after receiving his richly deserved FIFA Young Player award, Fernandez’s sheepish smile transformed into one of unbridled joy as he re-joined his team-mates for the World Cup presentation.

Six years previously, Fernandez penned an open letter on Facebook to the man about to hoist that trophy high into the sky, urging his hero to reconsider retirement from international football. “Please don’t go, Leo,” he wrote. “Seeing you play with the light blue and white is the greatest pride in the world. Stay and have fun.” Thankfully, for Enzo – for every football lover – Lionel Messi did just that, going on to win the greatest prize of all. And with the help of a young midfielder with the world at his feet.

Fernandez played the role of an anchor in midfield for Scaloni’s team. His presence upgraded Argentina’s transition play from defence to attack. His vision and game-reading abilities also proved to be useful for his nation in this World Cup.

A modest, almost bashful smile came over Fernandez’s face as he climbed the podium to receive the Qatar 2022 FIFA Young Player award. Collecting the prize meant the dynamic midfielder was momentarily separated from his jubilant team-mates, celebrating wildly at the side of the presentation stage following the greatest World Cup final of them all.

As the scene unfolded, Fernandez could be forgiven for having a look of slight disbelief in his eyes. The 21-year’s story is among the most remarkable from this unforgettable World Cup.

Fernandez has been in a relationship with fellow Argentine, Valentina Cervantes since 2019 and have a daughter named Olivia Fernandez, born in May, 2020. Valentina Cervantes is a popular influencer on Instagram where she is followed by more than 115K accounts. She is often seeing at football stadiums supporting and cheering Fernandez.

2023 Transfer

Amid interest from across Europe, Fernandez signed for Portuguese side Benfica in 2022. A move to a league just below the UEFA top five of England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France, is often a wise one for a player moving from South America to Europe.

It allows the player to settle with less of the spotlight on them and gives suitors in those other leagues a chance to monitor the player’s progress and adaptation to European football more closely.

Many clubs have been in touch with Benfica since they signed the 21-year midfielder. It would not be a surprise to see him move to one of them in 2023, with the Portuguese club making a tidy, if not huge profit, having paid around $16 million to River Plate for his services.

Fernandez is sometimes seen as a defensive midfielder. He does have the ability to play in deep roles and do an effective job off the ball, winning it back and closing opposition attackers, but to label him solely as defensive would be doing him a disservice.

It would be no surprise to see him deployed as an out-and-out attacking playmaker or No. 10 in the future, but now he is most effective when doing a bit of everything in the middle of the field, giving himself a platform from which to unleash his creative talents.

Whichever club manages to secure his services from Benfica will be getting a player who has risen from being a promising young player at River Plate to a key player for his national team going into a World Cup final in the space of just two years.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil, and double MSc. His email is [email protected])