It is no easy task being a central defender in Argentina’s national side, where the limelight is taken by the team’s glittering array of strikers and forwards, and where the achievements of the defensive greats of the past are the yardstick by which all occupants of the position are now measured.
Just ask 24-year-old Federico Fernandez, one of the latest centre-backs to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Passarella, Oscar Ruggeri and Roberto Ayala, all of whom were giants in the role, setting the standard for future generations of Albiceleste stoppers.
“There’s no question about the quality of the people who have played in the position, including Ayala, who was my role model,” the young Napoli defender told FIFA.com. “We’ve gone through different phases, though, for different reasons and now we’re going through another one. We have to think only about ourselves, about this group, and get stronger.”
Sturdy of physique, the 6’3 Fernandez is an excellent reader of the game and a formidable adversary in the air. He came to prominence at Estudiantes, where he learned his trade as a youngster before catching the eye of first-team coach Alejandro Sabella.
Under his stewardship, Fernandez made an important contribution to El Pincha’s 2010 Torneo Apertura win and subsequently earned himself a move to Serie A’s Napoli in the middle of 2011. After spending a season and a half with the Italian club, he was loaned out to Spanish side Getafe, where he has played for the last six months.
Speaking of his spell with the Madrid club, which has now come to an end, Fernandez said: “It was a very positive experience because I was playing first-team football again – which I wasn’t doing in Italy – and in one of the biggest leagues in the world.
"It was very useful for me, more than anything because it’s a different game to what you get in Italy, where they don’t let you play as much and everything’s very tactical. The game’s more open in Spain and it’s a different experience, which helps you to grow.”
A fixture in the national side since Sabella announced his first squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers, Fernandez made his first start on Matchday 4 of the competition and has remained an integral part of the first team. His absence against Bolivia in Argentina’s last qualifying match was down to the fact he was on a yellow card, with Sabella preferring not to risk him for that game and ensure his availability for Friday’s revenge meeting with Colombia in Buenos Aires.
Asked about the reasons behind his promotion to a starting berth, Fernandez offered a frank response: “Sabella didn’t just come up to me and say: ‘The place is yours’. It was something that happened gradually.
"I started on the fringes and when my chance came in Colombia I played well. From that day on I’ve always had the faith of the coach and my team-mates. I’m enjoying the moment, but you have to keep on performing here.”
Among the squad's defenders, only Pablo Zabaleta, with 695 minutes, has spent more time on the pitch in the qualifying competition than Fernandez (635). In the seven games in which he has teamed up with Ezequiel Garay at the heart of the defence, La Albiceleste have let in just four goals, the same number they have conceded in their four other matches. Despite those impressive figures, which have contributed to the second-best defensive record in the group, Sabella’s rearguard has come in for criticism in Argentina.
“That doesn’t bother me. I take it all in my stride,” said the unflappable centre-back. “You have to know your place in the team, and from the midfield up we’ve got the best players in the world. They’re the ones who have to shine, and they deserve to.
"The defence is where we’ve had the most changes in the last few years: Garay, Marquitos Rojo, Hugo [Campagnaro] and Pablo have been involved in the set-up for years but weren’t playing before. We’re the newest people in the team. On a personal level I know what my job is and I try to do it to the best of my ability.”
Colombia, Ecuador and beyond
As he went on to explain, Fernandez is looking forward to Argentina’s back-to-back qualifiers against Los Cafeteros and Ecuador: “We’ve got two very attractive games against the sides right behind us in the table, who are going to give us a big test.
"Like us, Colombia will go into the game with their morale and confidence levels high. Some of their players can cause all sorts of problems for defenders, like [Radamel] Falcao, whom I’ve played against before, but their full-backs are dangerous too and the midfielders move the ball around a lot. They’ve got tremendous potential and I don’t think they’ll be sitting back against us.”
On the subject of next week’s trip to Ecuador, Fernandez had this to say: “Quito is not an easy place for anyone to go to because the fans get right behind Ecuador there. The ideal thing would be to beat Colombia, which will set us up nicely for the trip. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Considering that a place at Brazil 2014 is within touching distance, the young defender is remarkably calm on the outside. Are there any nerves underneath, however? “A little,” he said in reply. “I haven’t been in the national team for long, and to be here fighting for a place at the World Cup is something I’ve always dreamed about.
"I’m very happy about it. If you think about it too much, though, it can end up affecting you. Football is all about the present and the opportunity is there for us right now. We can’t afford to miss it.”