Lucas Alario is currently the name on everybody’s lips in Argentina. The River Plate striker’s goals have been a key part of the giants five-game winning run including the Primera Division and Copa Libertadores, which has seen the Millonario jump into contention in both competitions since the start of 2017.
Such prowess, naturally, has not gone unnoticed. The 24-year-old hotshot is regularly mooted as a viable alternative to Gonzalo Higuain leading the line for struggling Argentina, and will almost certainly be in the plans of Jorge Sampaoli or whoever happens to be the next national team coach. His brilliant – and sustained – form has also caught the eye across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, with clubs such as Lazio, Tottenham and Liverpool all linked with the mobile forward either this summer or at the end of the current calendar year.
It all could have been so different for Alario, however. In February River were effectively resigned to losing their star forward for the campaign ahead; not to a European big-hitter, either, but to the nouveaux riches of the Chinese Super League, who had offered him a contract that dwarfed any figure he could dreaming of attaining in his home nation.
But, unlike Carlos Tevez, Alario said no to a deal that would have made him an instant millionaire. And ironically enough he has a player more closely associated with River’s bitterest enemies Boca Juniors to thank.
When the offer from Tianjin Teda arrived, the striker was logically in doubt. Reports talk of a salary package worth an estimated €20 million over four years plus a hefty percentage of the €24m fee the Chinese club were said to be prepared to pay out. “Right now we are 50-50,” Alario’s agent Pedro Aldave told reporters when the bid became public.
“If we had have wanted to go we would have done so already, but we are also weighing up the sporting side. [Alario] is not 20 like when Higuain or Dybala were sold for less money.” The player’s father Abel also weighed in, admitting that “The offer is massive… we will have to think it through, but Lucas and his agent will make the decision.”
What, then, eventually swayed the budding Argentina international to stick it out in the relative poverty of the Primera Division? It was none other than Emanuel Gigliotti, formerly of Boca, and an ex-team-mate of Alario’s at first club Colon, who made the younger man see that a move to China could seriously hurt his future in the game.
“I played together with Lucas, we have a lot of mutual friends and he called me yesterday to find out a little more about Chinese football,” Gigliotti, who spent two seasons in the Super League with Chonquing Lifan before returning home to play in Independiente, explained to TyC Sports. While we do not know if the powerful forward mentioned the change in diet as a key factor in his decision - "The weirdest thing I ate was turtle,” he said on another occasion, this time to Clarin – it is clear that Alario took the message from his old friend to heart.
“I told him my experience and I spoke to him a little about himself, it is a different situation to mine where I left at 27. At 23 he can wait for another offer because he is in great form at the moment.”
Those offers indeed are already beginning to arrive. With nine goals Alario is fifth in the Primera scoring stakes this season, and three of those have come in River’s last two league games. His mobile, unselfish style around the area also brings his team-mates into play, helping to get the best out of raw prospects such as Sebastian Driussi and Gonzalo Martinez around him.
Aldave has no doubt that his client could take the plunge at a Lazio, Liverpool or Tottenham. “Alario is definitely ready to jump up to Europe. He is currently the best player in Argentine football. He is young and already in the national team,” the agent said when the latest round of rumours broke. The forward’s promise has been evident ever since he effortlessly stepped up to the River team back in 2015, and he is a standard-bearer for the next generation which Argentina will need to refresh their struggling first XI in time for the World Cup in Russia.
All that potential, however, might well have come to nothing had he bowed to China’s millions and opted to venture out into a relative football backwater. Right now few in Argentina have a brighter future to Alario, and he has Gigliotti to thank for keeping his mind clear - even if it proves to the detriment of Boca when the two sides next clash.