For the 11-year-old Julian Alvarez, 2011 proved to be a bittersweet year.
The Cordoba native had been on top of the world after travelling to carry out a trial with Real Madrid, during which he netted two goals in five appearances to help the Spanish giants win a youth tournament.
Just a couple of months later, however, Alvarez could only look on as his beloved River Plate were condemned to an historic first relegation. As fate would have it Belgrano, from his own Cordoba province, ended up relegating los Millonarios, sending shockwaves through the world of Argentine football.
River eventually recovered from that devastating blow, coming back stronger than ever under the stewardship of Marcelo Gallardo. And having seen the likes of David Trezeguet, Fernando Cavenaghi and later Lucas Alario and Nacho Scocco score the goals that lifted the club from the Nacional B to champions of South America, Alvarez is now one of the first names on Gallardo's team sheet as he seeks to send the Buenos Aires giants to yet another Copa Libertadores final.
The 20-year-old has been around the River set-up for some time now, winning his maiden first-team call-up towards the end of 2018 and even playing the final few minutes in Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu as Gallardo's men downed Boca Juniors to be crowned South American champions in one of the most infamous Libertadores finals of all time.
But, with such reserves of talent at the coach's disposal, Alvarez has had to be patient. He went into 2020 with just a handful of games under his belt, mostly off the bench or when River rotated their squad to keep the senior stars fresh for Copa participation.
This year, though, and particularly since South American football recommenced following the Covid pandemic, the young forward has been unstoppable. His successful penalty against Argentinos Juniors on Sunday took him to seven goals in 14 games since the restart, five of those coming in River's Libertadores campaign.
River as a result cruised through a tough Copa group ahead of the likes of Liga de Quito and Sao Paulo, and dispatched Athletico Paranaense in the last 16. And with a 2-0 advantage over Nacional going into Thursday's return match in Uruguay, only a catastrophe against Gallardo's former club would prevent them from clinching their fourth straight semi-final appearance in the tournament, having fought all the way to the final last time round only to lose out in injury time to Flamengo.
“He is a player that every coach would love to have,” Gallardo told reporters of his new gem when he first began to grab the headlines back in September. How different might things have been, though, had Alvarez been able to take up the interest of Madrid back at the very start of his career.Clarin
Born in the tiny village of Calchin in the heart of Cordoba province, the youngster was marked out for greatness from an early age at local club Atletico Calchin. News of the prodigy soon started to spread, culminating in the invitation to travel to Madrid and try his luck with one of the world's elite clubs.
“I played five games of the Peralanda tournament and scored twice. We won the final against Betis and I assisted the 1-0 goal,” the 11-year-old Alvarez told La Voz from Madrid. “I also played a Clasico against Barcelona.”
Father Gustavo added: “It would be a dream if he could stay. We are a working family. I work in a cereal company and my wife Mariana is a kindergarten teacher.”
In order to gain permission for such a move, however, the entire Alvarez family would have had to move to Madrid; and in any case the club's policy is to wait until at least the age of 13 before recruiting talent from overseas.
Alvarez returned to Argentina and, following further trials with Boca and Argentinos, finally landed in River's academy in 2015. Now he is a regular in the first team - either in the middle of attack or out on the right, where his pace and technique make him a nightmare for any defender to stop.
Even the most ardent River fans recognise that if he is to keep up his sparkling form it will not be long until a permanent move to Europe beckons again.
Juventus were linked with Alvarez's talents earlier in 2020. Curiously enough, his hometown of Calchin lies just over 60km away from Laguna Larga, where fellow Cordoba native Paulo Dybala grew up, but the strongest reports place him at Atletico Madrid under the watchful eye of compatriot and ex-River boss Diego Simeone.
Simeone has recruited heavily in South America during his decade at the Colchonero helm, bringing in the likes of Jose Gimenez, Angel Correa, Matias Kranevitter and Alvarez's Argentina Under-20 team-mate Neheun Perez in recent years. The young striker could be a great addition looking to a future without ageing duo Luis Suarez and Diego Costa.
“Playing in Europe is most people's dream because of those leagues' quality and what it means to be at those clubs,” he admitted to Radio La Red in October.
“But I am taking it easy. Obviously I talk to my agent and my family, but I know I have to stay focused on what I'm doing. Later the time will come, through the work I am doing. On the Playstation I play with Barcelona or Manchester City.”
January is likely to be crucial for Alvarez, with an inevitable crescendo of transfer talk clashing with River's Libertadores aspirations.
Should they finish the job against Nacional on Thursday, the semis lie in store between January 5 and 13 and a prospective final at the Maracana on January 30.
Gallardo would no doubt love to keep his new star at the club beyond the month but if the right offer comes in, they will have little choice to sell and allow Alvarez to pick up where he left off in Europe almost a decade ago.