OSAKA (Reuters) - For every Lionel Messi, there are dozens of Argentine players such as Lucas Alario slogging away in the often ungratifying world of their country's domestic football, hoping for the break that will change their fortunes.
Alario, whose strike took River Plate to the Club World Cup final on Wednesday, has become a hero after scoring key goals in River's triumphant Libertadores Cup campaign.
But, before being spotted by the South American champions earlier this year, Alario had seen the other side of the Argentine game, playing through a strike, financial crisis and relegation at provincial club Colon.
River beat Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 and will face either Barcelona or Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande in the final, with the Catalans runaway favourites to win their semi-final later on Thursday.
For Alario, it is a far cry from the early part of his career.
"I've being living in a dream since we won the Libertadores," he told reporters.
"I always watched these competitions on the television and it's wonderful to experience them from the inside. To play against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar would be a wonderful experience."
Alario was raised in Cuatro Bocas, a tiny village of around 300 people in the sub-tropical province of Santiago del Estero, one of the poorest in Argentina, where he played barefoot.
Rejected by Newell's Old Boys when he went for a trial as a 16-year-old, he was later accepted by Colon which turned out to be a mixed blessing.
It started promisingly as Colon finished joint second in his first full season. But in 2013, players were left without pay for several months as the club fell into financial turmoil.
An exodus followed, although Alario stayed and found himself playing a key part in the drama as they were relegated in 2014.
He was momentarily the hero when his stoppage time goal gave them a 2-1 win over Olimpo which avoided direct relegation and earned a playoff tie against Atletico Rafaela.
That game, however, ended in a 2-1 defeat with Alario coming agonisingly close to a last-gasp equaliser.
But, in another quirk of Argentine football, Colon were promoted only six months later thanks to a decision to restructure the league and increase the first division from 20 to 30 teams.
Back in the top flight for this year's championship, he was spotted by manager Marcelo Gallardo who was looking to add some physical presence to his attack, though even then River nearly pulled out of the deal because of a previous knee injury.
Initially seen as a substitute, Alario proved an almost instant success as he scored the goal which took them to the Libertadores final, a superb lob against Paraguayan side Guarani, and broke the deadlock in a 3-0 win over Mexican side Tigres in the final itself.
"This is what is great about football," he said of his change in fortunes, adding he was not bothered about reports that Barcelona defender Gerard Pique had never heard of him.
"It's only natural that he doesn't know who I am," he said. And he was not even thinking about which player he wanted to swap shirts with, telling reporters. "I want the cup."
Editing by John O'Brien