Enzo Fernandez Lionel Messi Argentina World Cup 2022Getty

Enzo Fernandez: From Messi fan to Argentina's breakout star at Qatar 2022

Just like pretty much everyone else, Jose Peseiro was surprised to learn that Enzo Fernandez is only 21 years of age. "Either that's a lie," Nigeria's Portuguese coach told A Bola, "or he's a genius."

It's definitely not the former, but it could well be the latter.

The World Cup never fails to propel previously little-known players to superstardom, but the Fernandez fairy-tale is something truly special. We're talking about a kid that posted a heartfelt plea to Lionel Messi to reverse his decision to quit playing for Argentina after the 2016 Copa America.

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"Do what you want, Lionel, but please think about staying. Stay and have fun," he wrote on Facebook. "In a world of ridiculous pressures, they manage to get the most noble thing out of the game, the fun.

"Seeing you play with the light blue and white is the greatest pride in the world. Play for fun, because when you're having fun, you have no idea how much fun we have. Thank you and forgive us."

Last Saturday night, Fernandez took a pass from his idol just inside the Mexico penalty area and bent the ball into the top corner to seal a vital 2-0 victory.

"I know Enzo very well, here from the national team and I also played against him in the Champions League," Messi told reporters afterwards. "He deserves it, because he’s a spectacular kid and a very important player for us."

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There's no doubt about that now. Fernandez may have only made his international debut in September, but he is now a certain starter in Saturday's last-16 showdown with Australia.

The River Plate academy product was excellent in Wednesday's 2-0 win over Poland, creating the second goal for Julian Alvarez with a clever scooped pass between a couple of defenders.

Fernandez hasn't just impressed with his offensive threat, though, he's also been excellent from a defensive perspective, underlining precisely why he's long been regarded by those in the know as one of the most promising box-to-box midfielders in world football.

Indeed, during a hugely beneficial loan spell at Defensa y Justicia in 2020-21, club president Diego Lemme told the youngster that he was a future Real Madrid player. And that prediction could well come true.

Madrid are just one of a plethora of elite European clubs vying for Fernandez's signature. He only joined Benfica from River during the summer, of course, but the Portuguese side stand to make a colossal profit on the €10 million (£8m/$10m) they paid for the San Martin native, with Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea also reportedly interested.

The battle for his services is wholly unsurprising. Fernandez's talent is as impressive as his temperament, as despite all of the hype, he's as grounded as they come.

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He was first named on the River bench in January 2019, but didn't actually make it onto the pitch until March of the following year. Not long after, he was sent out on loan, but he wasn't upset; on the contrary, he embraced the move.

"When Marcelo [Gallardo, River coach] told me about Defensa, I took it well because it was a chance to show myself, get some games and compete against first-rate players," Fernandez told Ole. "I was lucky to be coached by two great trainers like Hernan Crespo and Sebastian Beccacece, share a squad with huge players and even better people, and pick up two titles (the Copa Sudamericana and the Recopa Sudamericana) which will go down in history.

"I have always been the same player, but my time at Defensa helped me grow so much, not just as a player but as a person. "I grew up a lot and that prepared me to go back to River and adapt in a different way to the team's rhythm."

Meanwhile, when the Madrid rumours first surfaced after his return to the Monumental, Fernandez told TyC Sports that he would remain "calm" and "humble" and continue to keep a "low profile" off the pitch.

He has a young daughter with his childhood sweetheart and is renowned for a level of maturity that belies his tender age. As reported by MARCA, he's also impressed everyone at Benfica with his work-rate and dedication to his craft. He brought his personal physio with him from Buenos Aires and immediately installed a gym in his Lisbon home.

His hard work and professionalism paid off, with Lionel Scaloni handing Fernandez his first Argentina cap as a substitute in the 3-0 friendly win over Honduras just two months ago.

Enzo Fernandez Julian Alvarez Argentina 2022 World Cup GFX

It was just reward for a blistering start to the season in which he had scored both home and away against FC Midtjylland in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.

Fernandez would go on to feature in five of Benfica's six group games as the Eagles sensationally pipped Paris Saint-Germain to top spot in their group, knocking out Juventus in the process.

It's still staggering, though, that Fernandez has emerged as such a pivotal player for Argentina at the World Cup. Wednesday's start against Poland was his first for his country but it was wholly justified.

Argentina's Copa America triumph last year owed much to the influence of Giovani Lo Celso, who was ruled out of the World Cup through injury. And with Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul both struggling for form and fitness, Scaloni needed someone to step up, and that's exactly what Fernandez has done. He is proving an excellent link between Argentina's midfield and attack.

Messi is having fun again for a variety of reasons. But the kid who so touchingly urged him to continue playing six years ago is undoubtedly one of them.