Chelsea’s new £107million signing Enzo Fernandez has always been in demand — so much so that his local boys’ club in Argentina used to fake power cuts to delay kick-off so he could turn out for them.
Now the most expensive signing in Premier League history, Fernandez started out at Club La Recova in Buenos Aires. When River Plate spotted him aged five, he began to play for both teams.
This was tricky when the sides had matches on the same night, but, as La Recova’s club president Sergio Coceres told Argentinian TV last month, a plan was hatched to ensure he never missed a match.
Once Fernandez had finished his game with River, La Recova would be tipped off and as parents Raul and Marta drove him across the city, someone would flick a switch to turn out the floodlights to delay kick-off until their boy wonder had arrived.
‘He had to play, always with his identification on him,’ Coceres recalled. ‘No one believed he was one of ours.’
Enzo Fernandez joined Chelsea in a British record £107million transfer from Benfica
Fernandez is the latest star arrival at Chelsea following a January of heavy-spending by the club
Even during his boyhood years in his home nation of Argentina Fernandez was in-demand
There is a River Plate shirt signed by Fernandez proudly displayed on the club wall. The now 22-year-old, named ‘Enzo’ after River Plate’s Uruguayan legend Enzo Francescoli, will be urged to send a Chelsea one to be displayed alongside it.
He remains La Recova’s favourite son and is adored at River too — even more so now, given they are in line for 25 per cent of the money that Benfica receive from Chelsea.
Fernandez was not at Benfica long enough to earn quite the same levels of affection but the Portuguese club can have few complaints either. They signed him for just £8.9m rising to a possible £16m last summer and a few months later have agreed for his £105m release clause to be paid in full.
Fernandez upset Benfica when he stayed in Argentina to celebrate the new year and was disciplined on his return.
He seemed to make peace with fans and coach Roger Schmidt when he returned to score in a cup game two weeks ago. His soaring value will help heal any lingering resentment there.
At Chelsea, there is only anticipation over the arrival of a player whose World Cup final performance suggests he is ready to become the club’s midfield leader for years to come. It was Fernandez’s display against France that convinced Blues owner Todd Boehly to break the British transfer record to sign him.
Fernandez played 69 passes and made 10 successful tackles in the final, more than anyone else for Argentina.
Chelsea are getting a player capable of playing in a midfield pair in a 4-2-3-1, or at the heart of a three in a 4-3-3, where he played at the World Cup.
Fernandez (left) took to social media today to thank Benfica fans following his move to England
Chelsea co-owner Behdad Eghbali (left) is said to have been key in securing the deal
Chelsea completed the deal for the World Cup’s best young player on deadline day
No one who had watched him at Benfica could be too surprised at how he dominated against France. In Portugal he usually played in a defensive midfield pair alongside Florentino, who gave him greater licence to surge forward from deep and influence games higher up the pitch.
That could be his remit at Chelsea alongside Mateo Kovacic, but his flexibility will give Blues manager Graham Potter plenty of options.
Fernandez’s ability to win the ball back with controlled aggression matches his passing prowess. And Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa can vouch for his shooting ability, after Fernandez scored past him to give Argentina a 2-0 win in their second World Cup group game in Qatar.
There had been a clamour for Fernandez to start that match. He did not, but he made an impact when he came on and started every game thereafter through to the final.
Fernandez (red) has the ability to become Chelsea’s newest midfield leader
Fernandez won the World Cup with Argentina alongside national hero Lionel Messi in Qatar
‘Make sure you shoot, you’ll score,’ Pablo Esquivel, who had discovered five-year-old Enzo at La Recova, told him in a text message on the eve of that Mexico game.
Esquivel knew Fernandez’s willingness to sacrifice himself for others sometimes stopped him from trying anything audacious. But his ability to finish, as well as initiate moves, is beyond doubt.
The fact it was Lionel Messi with whom he celebrated his first Argentina goal was fitting. It was Messi who played him in and Fernandez’s goal made him the youngest player (21 years and 313 days) since Messi (18 years and 257 days) to score in a World Cup group game for his country.
Six years earlier, while still a teenage hopeful at River Plate, he had also taken to Facebook to defend Messi against abuse he was receiving in Argentina for announcing his retirement from international football.During the World Cup in Qatar, Argentinian media recovered those impassioned posts.
Fernandez has always shown his star qualities during his rise to stardom
The midfielder is capable of battling in numerous midfield positions for his new club
Fernandez wrote: ‘How can we convince you when we have only ever had one per cent of the pressure you have had on your shoulders?’ Urging Messi to change his mind, he added: ‘When you were a kid you must have dreamed of representing your country and having fun. Play to have fun, because when you have fun, you have no idea how much fun we have.’
Messi eventually reversed his decision to quit, and it was all worth it last December when he finally lifted the World Cup with Fernandez by his side.
Fernandez can claim to have twice helped prevent Messi from retiring. Argentina’s captain had originally planned to quit after Qatar but is still riding the adrenaline wave from winning the tournament, vowing to play on until next year’s Copa America alongside Chelsea’s new midfielder.
By then Fernandez will be a year into life in west London and Chelsea will know if, as it was for La Recova, it is always worth doing whatever it takes to have him on your side.