Chilean Matias Fernandez was named South American Footballer of the Year in 2006. Blessed with ability that drives his opponents to despair, he is on course to become one of the world’s great… and he is only 20 years old.
The commotion was upsetting for a baby only six week old, so Mirtha, his mother, picked him up to stop him from crying. Outside, a winter carnival had erupted on the streets of Buenos Aires after Diego Maradona had given Argentina their second FIFA World Cup TM on 29 June 1986.
Although Matias Fernandez was born and raised in Buenos Aires, where people live and breathe football, it has always been his father Humberto’s wish to return to his native Chile. The restoration of democracy in Chile provided the ideal opportunity to return home.
The Fernandez family moved to La Calera, where Matias soon blazed a trail through the youth categories at Union La Calera. When his neighbors went to see Fernandez play, a slight, timid and withdrawn figure in a number 10 shirt, they immediately dubbed him “Pelusa” (meaning fluffy hair), Diego Maradona’s childhood nickname. “Everyone was talking about Diego to me, but I’d never seen him, so I watched some videos of him and I couldn’t believe what I saw. He’s the greatest, my role model,” said Fernandez on one of the few occasions that he has spoken to the press.
A STAR IS BORN
The teachers at Irma Sapiain school remember Fernandez as a quiet boy who preferred to do his talking on the pitch, where his shyness made way for his burgeoning talent. “It was his vision and shooting that made him stand out,” recalls his first coach, Alexis Ortega.
At the age of 12, Fernandez left his home and loved ones behind in order to pursue his dream of becoming a footballer. The Fernandez family moved to the Chilean capital, Santiago, and young Matias joined Colo Colo, Chile’s best-supported club. It was love at first sight: he made his first division debut at 17 and become a first-team regular aged 18 during the 2004 Chilean Clausura championship, playing in the derby against Universidad de Chile on 1 August of that year. This turned him into an overnight success.
Adaptation period? What’s that? Within a week he had established himself as a goalscorer with a brace against Cobresal before going on to win El Mercurio newspaper’s best young player award at the end of the tournament.
The word “different” trends to be complimentary in Argentina and it describes Fernandez perfectly. Although he is only 20 years old, nobody calls him a revelation any more. In February 2005, he notched up another brace, this time for Chile in their draw with Uruguay in the South American U-20 Championship, thus earning them qualification for FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands.
MATURE BEYOND HIS YEARS
However, it was as a Colo Colo player that Fernandez began to truly fulfil the promise he had shown, scoring 8 goals in 21 matches in the 2004 Clausura. Despite a respectable 9 goals in 30 matches in 2005, it was in 2006 that the Chilean truly made his mark, hitting 39 goals in 55 matches. The name “Matigol” stuck and scouts turned their gaze towards Chile and the young midfielder, whose physical bearing makes him an unlikely goalscorer. Nevertheless, the Chaplinesque gait with which he subtly dictates the game, his ball retention and control and his sublime accuracy all leave no room for doubt: Fernandez is a phenomenon.
According to the Argentinian Claudio Borghi, Colo Colo’s head coach, Fernandez “is very mature for his age. There are obviously still areas in which he needs to improve, but in a short time he will be up there with the best in the world.”
Last year, he completely dominated the scene in South America and also showed that he has courage – when he had to keep the ball, he did so with a shrewdness that belied his years. And whenever he needed to go forward, he was equally astute, directing his team-mates in an exhibition of collective play. Despite his rich fund of creativity and polished technique, his greatest virtue is to always use his ability for the benefit of his team, displaying vision more typical of a veteran.
Fernandez also relishes taking free kicks with his right foot and did so throughout the last Copa Sudamericana. His performances earned him the 2006 South American Footballer of the Year award from Uruguayan newspaper El Pais.
According to Elias Figueroa, the iconic Chilean defender who was considered one of the best in the world in the 1970s and won the award three times in his career, “It’s not only important for Matias, but also for Chilean football in general, because it gives the country a good name.” Figueroa won his awards while he was at Internacional in Brazil and was keen to point out that it was the first time that a footballer from a Chilean club had scooped this honor.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Although Fernandez was wanted by Dinamo Kiev, who know a thing or two about strikers after producing Andriy Shevchenko, and Chelsea, who always have their wallet at the ready to snap up goalscoring talent, he was eventually signed by Spanish club Villarreal for 7 m. EUR.
As a result, “Mati” is now working under fellow countryman Manuel Pellegrini, who is waiting for the right moment to introduce him to European football. “We don’t want to pressure him, because that could be counterproductive. He will improve through playing with Riquelme because quality players always have a good understanding.”
Mati is now getting to know his new teammates. Whereas he was previously complemented by the talented Jorge Valdivia (now at Palmeiras) and fellow goalscorer Humberto Suazo, he now has Juan Riquelme and Diego Forlan for company. According to Forlan, who was top scorer in Spain in 2005, “It’s not to arrive and settle in quickly, but Matias has the ability to do so. Football varies from place to place: the good thing about coming to Villarreal is that it’s a quiet club and there is no pressure to perform like in Argentina, Uruguay or Chile, where the press is a lot more on top of you.”
3,500 fans at the El Madrigal stadium received Fernandez. Villarreal president Fernando Roig considers him to be “a great footballer who could mark the beginning of a new era. But we cannot burden him with responsibility; he hasn’t come to save anybody.”
Although Fernandez continues to maintain a low profile, his voice has been heard in Spain, a country where you cannot systematically refuse to talk to the press; this is another area where he is still learning.
The excitement that was generated in eastern Spain was echoed in Chile, where Puma had to accelerate production of Villarreal’s yellow jerseys with number 21 on the back in order to sell them in shops in Santiago. In the meantime, Fernandez’s nationality is the subject of debate between Argentineans and Chileans in Internet chat rooms. While Argentineans point to Fernandez’s birthplace, Chileans remind them that it was their country he chose to represent. This controversy came to an end a few weeks ago, however, when the player broke his silence in no uncertain terms: “I never thought of playing for Argentina. I’ve lived in Chile since I was five and I feel Chilean.”
Chile have only played in one of the last six FIFA World Cups and have never won the Copa America, which will be played in Venezuela later this year. Fernandez’s growing talent has left Chileans hopeful of finally lifting the world’s oldest continental trophy.
Even fans of Colo Colo’s rivals have put their jealousy to one side and the whole of the country is dreaming of seeing “Mati” celebrating goals with his trademark gesture of an outstretched little finger and thumb, as if conjuring up a telephone with which to call his mother to dedicate the goal to her. They dream of seeing him in red; they dream of seeing him victorious … and he is certainly giving them a reason for doing so.