Franco Armani, Juan Quintero bring World Cup intrigue to River Plate
Nearly 70 years ago, the great Alfredo Di Stefano left Buenos Aires giants River Plate and headed north to Colombia to play for Millonarios of Bogota. It was an important stage of a career that then took him to Real Madrid, where, as the European Cup (now Champions League) was launched, he became perhaps the most influential player European club football has ever seen. Now Colombia is returning the favour. Two of the most intriguing imports to Argentine football this year are a couple of River Plate reinforcements who are coming down from the north.
One is an Argentine: goalkeeper Franco Armani, who left the land of his birth in 2010, trading little Deportivo Merlo for Medellin giants Atletico Nacional. Eight years on, he is a hero to Nacional fans. Particularly over the past four seasons, he has been undisputed first-choice keeper in an all-conquering side. The 31-year-old might not be the most elegant version of Armani in the world, but he is an effective and reliable shot-stopper, and the timing of his move back home is fascinating.
Colombia were interested in naturalising Armani. With David Ospina not getting much game time with Arsenal, and ending the World Cup qualification campaign with a series of bizarre errors, there might have been a real chance of Armani playing in Russia this June and July.
That chance might still exist, but with Argentina. As with Ospina, Argentina's first choice is also a reserve at an English club. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli might well be concerned with the inactivity of Sergio Romero at Manchester United. There are not too many top-class replacements around; doing well at River Plate would put Armani right in the shop window.
And even more intriguing is River's signing of Colombian playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero, on loan from Porto in Portugal but last seen in action at Independiente Medellin, the local rivals of Armani's old club.
Just turned 25, Quintero should theoretically be coming into his peak years. And they really should be exhilarating, because there is no more talented player on South American soil.
Quintero has a magnificent left foot, and an internal compass that allows his to see the angles and weigh up the possibilities for an imaginative pass. He has the ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and control it. But does he have the desire?
In recent years, his career has taken a disappointing turn. He has put on weight, and a few months ago there were even rumours he wanted to give up the game and take up music. A few months back at Medellin at least got him back on the field, though his teammates were not always bright enough to understand the opportunities he was capable of setting up.
River Plate, though, offer him a wonderful stage. With his touch of style, Quintero is a player who fits in perfectly with the club's historical identity, and the fact that coach Marcelo Gallardo was himself an excellent attacking midfielder only adds to the synergies.
And it is just possible that River Plate's gain could also turn out to be Colombia's. Quintero scored in the last World Cup. At the age of 21, he looked to be part of the long-term future of the national team. But there have been no more competitive appearances. He appeared in Colombia's first five friendlies after Brazil 2014, and was last seen in a Colombia shirt in March 2015.
Since reaching the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in 2014, Colombia have been consistently disappointing, and though they made it through to Russia, their qualification campaign was a laboured affair, with few highlights. Quintero's ability to link the side together -- the way he did when Colombia were South American under-20 champions in 2013 -- has been missed. There is much that a fit and motivated Juan Fernando Quintero could bring to the current Colombia side. The national team's coach -- Jose Pekerman, an Argentine -- will surely be following his progress at River Plate.
So with the Argentine domestic season about to resume, the stakes are high for two of River Plate's recruits.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.