For a few weeks, it seemed he might be the answer to Derby's goal drought. But then the mysterious Argentine ran into a new opponent, as Chris Hall recounts
In August 1999 a burly Argentine headed the winner for Derby against Everton at Pride Park. Less than three months later, the same man, on his way back from a training camp in Portugal, was refused re-entry into England at Heathrow on the grounds that his passport was a forgery. The name on the passport was Esteban Fuertes – and the player, whoever he was, never appeared in a Derby shirt again.
This was just the climax of an epic tale of greed, lies and incompetence. Desperately needing a replacement for West Ham-bound Paulo Wanchope, the then Derby manager Jim Smith had moved for Fuertes in early July. Although uncapped, the Argentine came complete with an Italian passport, courtesy of his grandparents, meaning he would not require a work permit. The problem at this stage therefore was not who he was, but rather who owned his contract. While the player had made his name at Colón de Santa Fe, it turned out he was only on loan there and that his registration was split between two clubs and, amazingly, a management company.
Despite “a feeling of unease”, Smith gamely tried to push the transfer through. Deep into the new season, however, and after a succession of deadlines had been set and ignored, the squabbling over who was entitled to the fee was still ongoing. Meanwhile, Derby were suffering from a chronic lack of firepower and had only mustered a single point and two goals from their first four games.
By now it was clear that, in terms of advice from agents, the club had been sold down the río. In total disarray and changing their tune daily about the deal’s prospects, Derby came up with a cunning plan. The initial £1.3 million instalment of the £2.8 million transfer was to be paid to the Argentinian FA for them to cobble together an emergency loan agreement and, hey presto, Fuertes would be a Derby player – for the time being at least.
To begin with, the gamble seemed to pay off. Derby recorded their first win of the season at Hillsborough on Fuertes’s debut and his winner against Everton followed. But then things began to go wrong – first with a sending off against Bradford leading to a three-match ban and then, spectacularly, on that fateful day at Heathrow.
But the story doesn’t end there. Jim Smith, in his autobiography, even talked of conspiracy: “The immigration officials chose to scrutinise every detail of every passport, even down to using infra-red. It seemed clear to us that somebody knew about the fake passport and had tipped off the authorities.” But if this is the case, who was the grass? A jealous team-mate? A previous employer unhappy at his share of the lolly? Or perhaps Fuertes’s own agent? After all, by forcing Derby to sell his client, he would be lining up another jackpot in commission.
As it turned out, there would be no instant pay-day for anyone. Derby had little option but to loan the striker back to Santa Fe until a buyer came in for him, during which time he plundered a blistering 12 goals in 11 games and forced himself into contention for the national team. Eventually Lens forked out approximately £2.8 million for him, which meant that the Rams, incredibly, had got their money back.
Fuertes had a good season at Lens, becoming something of a fans’ favourite. They even had a song for him which, roughly translated, went along the lines of: “When he’s on the pitch, the defence disappears, Esteban, Esteban la la la.” Unfortunately, before they could compose a second verse, he was on his way again – this time on loan to Tenerife in the Spanish First Division, where his five goals in 26 games were not enough to prevent relegation last season.
As a result of the Fuertes affair, the FA now demands that foreign players send their passports to be checked before a transfer is approved. Despite obvious irregularities, however, no legal proceedings have ever taken place. Fuertes himself has always maintained his innocence. He hardly emerged a loser, but it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing him in the Premiership again.
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month