When Paulo Dybala lines up for Juventus against Sevilla in Wednesday's Champions League opener in Turin, he will face off against two players he met in rather more modest and less competitive surroundings just three months earlier. Franco Vazquez and Luciano Vietto were both invitees to a charity match that Dybala organised in June at Club Sportivo's 5,500-capacity stadium in his hometown of Laguna Larga in Cordoba, Argentina.
In that match, the players emerged on the pitch via a steep and narrow stairway. The crowd, pressed against mesh fencing or seated in the stadium's only stand, welcomed their local hero and his friends with applause and excited shouts of support. They were given plenty to cheer about in a high-scoring game that finished in a 4-4 draw. Dybala stepped up to score the winning penalty in the shootout.
The attendance of Vazquez and Vietto was not coincidental. The respective birthplaces of Tanti and Balnearia are, like Laguna Larga, small towns located in the Cordoba province, each with less than 7,500 inhabitants. There is no more than 250 kilometres between any two of the three. Dybala and Vietto were born within 20 days of each other.
Indeed, add the Cordoba-born Javier Pastore to their number, and a convincing argument can be made that the province has started to rival Santa Fe (the home of Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega and Lionel Messi) as Argentina's prime producer of provincial talent.
While Vietto headed off to Buenos Aires to pursue his dream of becoming a footballer, Dybala and Vazquez stayed home and came up through the youth systems of Cordoba's two big clubs: Dybala at Instituto and Vazquez at Belgrano. But it was in Italy, at Palermo, that they first coincided. Neither immediately flourished, and it was only in combination that they first gave notice on a European stage of the talent that has since become obvious.
In Sicily, Dybala and Vazquez formed an inverted big-man, little-man partnership up front. Vazquez, with his strength and sharp control, acted as a slightly withdrawn focal point, while Dybala made runs behind and into the channels ahead of him. Between them, they provided 23 goals for an efficient counterattacking side that finished just outside Serie A's top 10 in the 2014-15 season. Their shared childhood experiences saw them forge a close bond on and off the pitch.
Dybala moved on to Juventus at the end of the campaign and went on to enjoy an excellent debut season with the Bianconeri. Vazquez, meanwhile, stayed on at Palermo for one more year before signing for Sevilla on a €15 million deal this summer. He was soon joined by Vietto, who came in on a one-year loan from Atletico Madrid with an option to buy.
Vietto recently admitted that he feels more comfortable with another forward playing alongside him. In that instance, he was referring to Wissam Ben Yedder, but there is no reason Vietto and Vazquez can't form at Sevilla a partnership similar to the one shared by Dybala and Vazquez that proved so profitable at Palermo.
Vazquez certainly performed admirably as the farthest forward man in the latter stages of Sevilla's European Super Cup final defeat to Real Madrid. He regularly received the ball under pressure and linked neatly with teammates. Even when both Ben Yedder and Vietto are on the pitch, Vazquez often finds himself as the highest central focal point, given how often those two move into the channels.
On the occasions when Vietto has played alone up front, Vazquez has usually been the man in closest attendance, but he has often not been close enough, which has left Vietto isolated. Sevilla have had a few problems moving the ball from deep into midfield during the opening weeks of the season, but once those issues are sorted, Vazquez should have more freedom to regularly position himself closer to the forward or forwards ahead of him.
Vietto missed Saturday's 2-1 win over Las Palmas with a knock but is likely to return Wednesday to join forces with Vazquez in Sevilla's attempt to strike an early blow in a competitive Champions League group against a Juventus side for whom Dybala will star.
It is unlikely that there will be much time for the trio to meet away from the field this week. That will perhaps have to wait until the end of the season and another engagement in Laguna Larga, or maybe Balnearia or Tanti. But Dybala is keen to not only be decisive again Wednesday but also provide himself with some mickey-taking material for future social meetings.
"I called Vazquez right away," he said a few days after the draw. "I told him I'm going to nutmeg him!"