A modest, almost bashful smile came over Enzo 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 teammates, 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-old’s story is among the most remarkable from this unforgettable World Cup.
Fernandez only made his senior international debut in September, coming on as a second-half substitute in a 3-0 friendly win over 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.
Fernandez secured his place in Lionel Scaloni’s Qatar 2022 squad following further 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 acclimatise to European football following his move from boyhood club River Plate this summer.
He has been a near ever-present for a Benfica side which has swept all before them at home and abroad this season. The team remain unbeaten across 28 matches in all competitions and finished top of a UEFA Champions League group featuring Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain. At just 21, 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. His ability to contribute in the final third, meanwhile, is underlined by the five assists and three goals he has already racked up for Benfica.
Fernandez’s ball-striking ability, of course, was memorably displayed in Argentina’s do-or-die group-stage win over Mexico, 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 in that game but would start every remaining match of Argentina’s triumphant World Cup campaign.
His introduction into coach Scaloni’s line-up coincided with Argentina steadily growing in stature and belief. 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 22 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 significant 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.