Argentine football is a cutthroat business. The best players tend to enjoy all too little time at the clubs that nurture them and introduce them to the world, swiftly moving on to bigger institutions and then to the glitz, glamour and massive paydays of Europe.
But there is always time for a second chance. Both Juan Roman Riquelme and Diego Milito demonstrated this week that they have not gone back to their roots merely to enjoy the ride.
Few transfers in the winter window received as much publicity in Argentina as Roman's sensational move to Argentinos Juniors. Having left La Paternal as a teenager to seek fame and fortune at local giants Boca, the brilliant 36-year-old playmaker finally made his debut for the club that moulded him into a star at a home match this weekend to Boca Unido.
Bicho fans had never got the chance to see the former Argentina international strut his stuff at first-team level. A few grainy videos of youth team games, like this tournament played against Roma, was the closest most had come to witnessing Riquelme pull on the famous red and white shirt. For that reason, on Saturday the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona (another graduate of the club's iconic Cebollitas youth divisions) was packed to burst.
The extra week handed to Roman due to the mourning period installed following AFA president Julio Humberto Grondona's passing proved vital in bringing him back to full fitness. The B Nacional is an unforgiving, tough league for stars, but the No. 10 made a swift adaptation as he inevitably took all the headlines.
Claudio Borghi's side were not exactly firing on all cylinders, but it did not matter. Riquelme only needed one moment of magic to steal the game away from the uncompromising visitors from Corrientes.
Receiving the ball wide on the left with just over 15 minutes remaining, Riquelme scored a goal that we have seen hundreds of time in Boca, Barcelona and Villarreal colours.
His first touch anchored possession, a classic enganche that changed the direction of play and left the goal open to his merciless right foot. His second was a devilish low shot that bounced on the way to the net, fooling Boca Unidos keeper Matias Garavano. The No. 1 did not exactly shine in keeping the ball out, but it did not matter. Riquelme had taken three points for the Bicho, the opening salvo in their battle to regain top-flight status in time for a league restructuring in December.
A handful of kilometres south in Avellaneda, another golden oldie was shaping up to make his "debut" after 10 years away from Argentine football.
Diego Milito had shined as a youngster in Racing, forming part of the squad that ended a 35-year trophy drought with the Apertura title in 2001. After five years with La Academia, Serie B and Genoa called, beginning a long haul through the European circuit that ended with a starting role at Inter, a Scudetto and Champions League title.
But Racing were always on the horizon for the intelligent workhorse forward. At 35 El Principe finally made the move back to his boyhood idols, and he has made an instant impact.
Milito's class was all-too evident as Diego Cocca's men destroyed Defensa y Justicia 3-1 in their opening match, raising hopes that 2014 would be different after a horror season in the last 12 months. The striker started off a little rusty, missing chances and struggling to find the pace against an opponent playing their first-ever game in the Primera Division and fighting for every ball.
But the best was still to come.
A delightful looped pass opened up Gaston Diaz in the first half, and a cross-shot was subsequently bundled in by Gabriel Hauche for his, and Racing's, second goal of the game.
After the break, the goal would finally arrive—and it was taken with pure class.
Diaz was again in the thick of things, seeing Milito wander away from his marker and into space. A fine ball was trapped by Milito and dispatched with authority and calm, sealing victory for La Academia and raising expectations that, with their returning hero in tow, a strong year is more than possible.
Supporters of top Argentine clubs are accustomed to seeing their stars leave for pastures new. It is built into the fan culture itself: songs belted out from the terraces, unlike in Europe, focus almost exclusively on the colours, past glories and the institution as a whole, with almost no mention of those men currently representing them.
To take just one example, Racing this transfer window bid farewell to no fewer than three top prospects as they headed to Manchester City (Bruno Zuculini), Valencia (Rodrigo De Paul) and Villarreal (Luciano Vietto).
The chopping and changing of playing staff is just another challenge coaches must tackle every winter transfer window.
For that reason, when a past favourite returns, it is a big deal indeed. Riquelme and Milito both demonstrated that they have come back to make a difference, and their class is a boost not just to the Bicho and La Academia, but to the nation's football as a whole.