Paraguayan goalkeeper Roberto Junior Fernandez tells the story with such fervour that it could almost have happened yesterday. “I was 16 and had just finished secondary school,” he explained to FIFA.com. “One evening, my mother took me to one side and asked if I wanted to go to university or become a professional footballer. I didn’t hesitate because I knew what I wanted. She was worried because she knew all about the life of a footballer and the family sacrifices it entails.”
Eight years on from that maternal chat and Fernandez is certainly not regretting his decision – his mother neither, and certainly not his father. A national hero between the posts at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, Roberto Fernandez experienced an even more thrilling high less than two years later, on 29 March 1988, when his son was born in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion. Now keeping goal for Dutch club Utrecht, Roberto Junior recalls first falling in love with the game aged eight, “without my father ever forcing me to. I even played as a forward when I first started out in football,” he added. “I enjoyed scoring, but one day I had to go in goal and I loved it so much I never left.”
Loaned by Argentinian side Racing Club to Utrecht last August, Paraguay’s back-up keeper at the 2011 Copa America has already fulfilled one dream by trying his luck in Europe. With 14 Eredivisie outings under his belt this term, he now hopes to have done enough to convince another club to keep him this side of the Atlantic Ocean next season. “I’ve always wanted to play in Europe and the reason I joined Estudiantes was because the Argentinian league is a better springboard,” he explained, before conceding that leaving his homeland also reduced the pressures of following in his father’s footsteps: “Yes, it’s true that in Paraguay the comparisons with my Dad are sometimes difficult to deal with.”
Nicknamed El Gatito – his father was dubbed El Gato – Fernandez started out in the game at Cerro Porteno, the same club where his father had finally hung up his gloves ten years previously. It was there that the youngster won his sole title to date, clinching the Paraguayan Apertura crown in 2009, but he promptly decided it was time to follow his own course. The shadow cast by his father’s reputation was proving hard to live with, despite Fernandez having long grown used to their unconventional situation. “When I was small, I had friends coming to the house all the time to be with him and talk to him,” said the former U-20 international. “When we were out walking, people stopped him all the time. It was difficult to do things together as he was always in demand. But I accepted it and I’ve always got on well with him.”
As a case in point, Roberto senior jetted over to the Netherlands to support his son when the latter found himself out of favour at Utrecht, who were unable to offer him a permanent deal and preferred fielding veteran shot-stopper Rob van Dijk between the sticks. “He’s always helped me, both with advice and analysis. He comes to training sessions and matches. Football is the basis of our relationship.”
If Fernandez has his way, his father will be making many more trips to the Old Continent to see him in action. “My style is better suited over here,” he explained, his height (1.91m) and ball skills making him feel at home in Europe. “They play more with the ball at feet and distribution is very important. In South America, the ball never gets passed back and there’s very little play with the ball at your feet [for a goalkeeper]. Distribution over there is all about long balls forward – it’s a different football altogether.”
Although he does not know where he will be next term, Fernandez hopes to be handed a role with La Albirroja in their upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifiers. Called up for last year’s Copa America in Argentina, he is now fully on the radar of coach Francisco Arce. “He follows my progress and we speak to each other,” he said. “Before I ended up on the bench at Utrecht, he told me he wanted me for the games in June. I hope he hasn’t changed his mind! The Copa America was one of the best experiences of my career. I learnt so much in every game and every training session.”
Fernandez’s thirst for learning should come as no surprise, of course. After all, he has been soaking up knowledge of the game since the age of eight, when he first began following in the paw prints of El Gato.