Matías Fernández, the forgotten Chilean star

The thing that a lot of football fans often fail to understand is that a player's growth and development is not linear in most cases. People like to think that all careers are like Lionel Messi's for example: starting out as a promising talent, only to grow, grow and grow until turning into arguably the best player of all time. But reality is a lot more complicated than that and a player's career often has a lot of ups and downs.

Today's protagonist might not ring a lot of bells for younger generations, but is one that a lot of South American football fans from the mid-2000s are familiar with, Matías Fernández. The Chilean midfielder was one of the most promising players of his generation and yet never managed to hit the heights that were expected of him, so, today we are going to talk about Matias, his career and what went wrong.

Rise in Chile

Matías Fernández was actually born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 15th of 1986, but lived in Chile during the vast majority of his childhood. He made his debut for one of the biggest clubs in the country, Colo-Colo, in 2003, when he was just 17 years old. He started out as a sub and won the individual award of best young player of the 2004 Clausura, slowly building himself up at the club.

After Jorge Valdivia, a talented attacking midfielder, left afterwards and this is where Fernandez really became the star of the team. It is worth pointing that the 2006 Colo-Colo team that won the Apertura that year and reached the Copa Sudamericana final, losing against Mexican team Pachuca, had the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, but Matias was regarded as the biggest talent of the squad at the time.

The Chilean also won the 2006 South American Player of the Year award, which was something that no other footballer of this country had accomplished until that point. It is also worth pointing out that he could have played the 2007 U-20s World Cup, but he was called to the Copa America by the senior team, which goes to show how highly rated he was.

Some of the best teams in the world, including the likes of Real Madrid, showed an interest in his services, but he would leave Colo-Colo and join Spanish club Villarreal in January of 2007, kick starting his journey in Europe.

Sporting Lisboa
Sporting - one of the clubs Matías Fernández played at in Europe

Villarreal, Sporting and Fiorentina

Matías Fernández arrived to Villarreal as a very promising signing with a lot of expectations. Their team recently let go of their star player, attacking midfielder Juan Román Riquelme, due to a spat with then-manager Manuel Pellegrini, so there was an expectation of Matias taking over that role and helping the Yellow Submarine in what was a very underwhelming season.

He spent three full years at Villarreal and never truly got going. He had some glimpses here and there, but the really was that his first experience in European football was quite underwhelming. On the other hand, his performances with the national team were solid and there was an argument to be made that Villarreal were not working either as a group.

Eventually, he was sold to Portuguese team Sporting Lisboa, where he would remain until 2012. His time in Sporting is widely regarded as his best period in Europe, serving as a key player for the club during his entire stint there and having a few top class performances, such as the one he had against Manchester City in the 2012 UEFA Europa League.

These solid performances allowed him to go Italian club Fiorentina, staying there until the summer of 2017. He played well at Fiorentina, but injuries were taking a huge toll on him during this period of his career, so there was a continuous stop-start feel to his performances, which made his time with the Viola very frustrating.

However, it is worth pointing that this was also the club where Matias spent the most time at in Europe, which is saying a lot, all things considered.

Milan and decline

As an interesting fact, Matías Fernández signed on loan with European giants AC Milan in the summer of 2016. If people had said this in the summer of 2006, everybody would have expected this to happen, but Matias was no longer that version of himself and Milan were in a very difficult position during those years.

With all of this happening, coupled with injuries, the truth is that Fernandez failed to make an impact in San Siro and wasn't signed by the Italian giants. Fiorentina sold him to Mexican team Necaxa in the summer of 2017, starting a pilgrimage of sorts, with him ending up in Colombian team Junior, returning to Colo-Colo, other teams and ultimately retiring in 2023.

There are a lot of reasons that explain Matias' decline and failing to live up to the expectations as a top class player. One of the most prominent is that the leap from South American football to Europe was too big at the time and that damaged his confidence. Another reason is that injuries took a huge toll on his physique, which was shown throughout the years.

The most prominent reason, though, was his introverted and shy nature. His manager during his first stint at Colo-Colo, former Argentinian star Claudio Borghi, stated that Matias struggled with the fact of moving to Santiago, but that he was so quiet and sensible that he didn't bother telling everybody. He also mentioned that the Chilean midfielder never played with the ambition of being the best in the world-that he only played because he enjoyed it and could help his family from a financial perspective.

His career was alright in the sense that he played in Europe for an entire decade, played in good clubs, won a couple of trophies, became the first Chilean to wear the AC Milan shirt and won two Copa America trophies with the national team, being important in those processes. But you look at Vidal and Sanchez thriving in world class clubs during those years and you can't help but wonder why he didn't make it.
Kelvin Tingling knows most things about football and also likes to write about it. Kelvin lives in Buenos Aires and his favorite team is Boca Juniors.