Argentina’s presence at the World Cup has been a big deal for Julian Alvarez, long before he was called up for the Qatar 2022 squad.
“In my house, the world stopped when the national team played,” he recalled. “The whole family turned on the TV, in the armchair at home, and not a fly would fly."
Alvarez was just a 14-year-old playing for his local club in the small village of Calchin the last time Argentina reached a World Cup final eight years ago.
City stars Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero and Martin Demichelis were all on the pitch when Argentina hearts were broken by Mario Gotze’s strike for Germany deep into extra time.
Four years later in Russia, Alvarez was one of a group of young Argentinian players invited to travel with the country's senior squad to the World Cup finals and take part in training sessions.
His debut for the national team came just 18 months ago but now Alvarez is the latest City player hoping to end the wait for Albiceleste success which stretches back to 1986 and the heroics of Diego Maradona.
It’s been a steady journey to City and the national team which began in Calchin, a north Argentinian village with a population of just over 2,000 people that now has a welcome sign featuring a picture of Alvarez as you drive in.
For the City striker, it was the place where he first fell in love with the game, playing constantly with brothers Agu and Rafael, who have supported him throughout his career.
From a very young age, the trio would kick a football around their home before later moving to a pitch located at the front of their house.
“Inside the house more than anywhere, the three of you played with the ball in every place, all day,” his mother Mariana said.
“We had to take care of the television and the paintings,” his father Gustavo added. “And then on to the football pitch in front of the house, always since you were three-years-old.”
Alvarez’s talent was clear as a youngster playing for higher age groups at Atletico Calchin and he earned the nickname “The Little Spider” from rivals because it seemed like he had so many legs.
The “Spider” nickname has stuck and he still celebrates goals by spreading his arms wide and extending his thumb, forefinger and little finger like Spiderman.
“I remember one goal, when he was about eight or nine, when he beat four or five rivals and scored a rabona goal,” his first coach Rafael Varas said.
“That’s when I realised we had a different kind of player, who could be a world star.
“I was not his teacher. How can you teach a player like Julian? You can only advise."
Real Madrid invited an 11-year-old Alvarez to Spain for trials and were keen to sign him but he returned home and eventually signed for River Plate, making his debut in October 2018 as an 18-year-old.
Later that season was a substitute in the Copa Libertadores final victory over rivals Boca Juniors at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.
Argentina were also keeping a close eye on his development and he made his debut for the under-20s in a South American Championship match away to Paraguay, four months later.
Then in 2019, he was at the Under-20s World Cup when Argentina lost in the last-16 on penalties to Mali before making nine appearances for the under-23s.
But Alvarez had already had a taste of being with the senior squad when he worked alongside City legend Aguero and Lionel Messi at their 2018 training base at the Syroyezhkin Sports School in Moscow.
Training so closely with two of the world’s greatest forwards of the modern era could only sharpen his instincts and he was also able to build a relationship with Aguero and kept in touch with City’s record goalscorer ahead of his move to the Etihad Stadium in the summer of 2022.
“When I knew I might be coming here I had a chat with him,” he said. “I had regular contact over a six-month period with Aguero and other [Argentina] players: what is the place like, what is the city like, what is the club like? It’s always good to have information when you go somewhere for the first time.
“We all know what Kun did here. He had a fantastic time and did some amazing performances, lots of goals, great goals but all the Argentines here have performed well. From the moment I arrived I wanted to have him as a reference; everyone remembers him with great affection.”
Unfortunately, Aguero was never able to lift the World Cup while this season’s tournament could well be Messi’s final opportunity to win the prize.
It’s the reality of a dream for Alvarez, who could only imagine what it was like to play alongside the iconic forward as a youngster in Calchin.
“You always learn just by watching him [though] it’s difficult to copy what he does,” he said.
“We all know what he’s done over the years – the best player in the world obviously. I’m lucky to be able to share a pitch with him and now I have a chance to play alongside him.”
Alvarez made his senior debut for Argentina in June 2021 in the 1-1 draw with Chile in the city of Cordoba, just 70 miles from his home.
A first goal followed nine months later in another 1-1 draw against Ecuador and now he will wear the number nine shirt in Qatar.
Argentina send a strong squad and Alvarez will face a battle for a place in the starting line-up with an intimidating roster of forwards that includes Inter’s Lautaro Martinez and Joaquin Correa and Roma’s Paulo Dybala as well as Messi.
So strong are the options for Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni, that Pep Guardiola has intimated to Alvarez that they are his tip for glory.
"One of the first days Pep, the Portuguese, and Rodri were talking about who could win the World Cup, I didn't say anything. They were saying Portugal, France, other European nations, and Pep says, 'do you know who has the best chances?' They don't say anything, and he points at me," Alvarez told ESPN.
Guardiola has made no secret of his affection and adulation for Messi from their days together at Barcelona, but his latest Argentinian superstar could make a big impact.
From Calchin to City and now to the World Cup stage, the rise of Alvarez is unstoppable and his goal against Poland might just be the launch pad for something very special indeed…