Argentina puts faith in its footballing hero
- 9 July 2014
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Argentina has certainly seen better days.
The government is in the middle of crisis talks with international creditors to avoid defaulting on debt payments.
Other ministers are being questioned over allegations of corruption. Inflation is running at above 30% and, in this most passionate of footballing countries, there has been no World Cup title to celebrate for 28 years.
But in the cold of a mid-winter Buenos Aires morning there is renewed belief and hope.
As their children and wives look on, wrapped up against the bitter wind, men who have spent the last six days working, or trying to find jobs in this challenging economic climate, are playing football.
There is plenty of skill, lots of shouting and angst at the referee's decisions.
As in many South American countries, football is an obsession here and most of Argentina's current national team came from these tough streets - but there is one name that stands out above all others.
"It's Messi, he's huge" - says Victor, as he shouts from he sidelines. "Everyone wants to play with him and for him. The national side revolves around him, he's simply the best player in the world."
At just 1.7m (5ft 7in), Lionel Messi is actually far from being "huge" but he still looms large over this country, quite literally.
Icons and heroes
In a nation which loves its heroic icons, an immense poster of the Argentine captain hangs from a public office block right in the middle of the Avenida Nueve de Julio - the 16-lane thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Buenos Aires.
The brilliant Messi has guided his previously underachieving and fractious side to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Here they now expect their mercurial captain to bring the good times back.
Lionel Messi made his international debut at the ground of Argentinos Juniors - the tiny club where Diego Maradona and many famous players started their careers.
As football clubs go, it is not particularly large or impressive.
Indeed, until not so long ago, most of the "seats" at the Argentinos Juniors ground were wooden benches - the "upgrade" to plastic seats and a concrete structure only happened in recent years.
Pride and faith
Yet Jaime Lerner talks about this club as if it was the most important in the country.
Curator of Juniors' small but fascinatingly detailed and historical museum, he describes this as the "nursery" of Argentine football
"This endless debate, who is the best - Maradona or Messi - I don't care, because here we helped them both on their way," he laughs as he shows me photographs and shirts worn by many players who went on to bigger and better things.
"The problem is that in Argentina, football is like life," muses Mr Lerner. "We lurch from crisis to crisis. There's too much corruption and meddling from politicians and we always underachieve."
Moment of truth
Football here is certainly not in good shape.
The clubs are underfunded, most of the country's best players are at clubs overseas and Argentina have not won the World Cup since 1986.
But people here think it might just be their moment - and where better to make that point than at the home of their fiercest rivals and neighbours, Brazil?
The Argentine invasion of Brazil has already begun.
Hundreds of thousands of raucous fans have been following their side's unbeaten World Cup campaign in Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre and Brasilia.
But, sensing they are on the verge of something special, many more have headed north by plane, car and - in particular - by campervan.
Rio's Copacabana beach has been turned Argentine blue, the "Albiceleste".
Fans from Buenos Aires and the provinces taunt their Brazilian "hosts" with a song that unfavourably compares the great Pele with Maradona.
There is no respect at all for Brazil's unparalleled five World Cup titles.
Before I left Buenos Aires, I met a former player who, arguably, is almost as successful as Maradona and, having played in three World Cups, has a lot more experience than most of today's Argentine stars.
Julio Olarticoechea won the World Cup as a defender in 1986.
In the infamous "Hand of God" match against England, he played almost as crucial a role as Maradona for it was Olarticoechea who flicked the ball away from Gary Lineker just as the England forward was preparing to pounce for a last-minute equalizer.
"Nothing compares to playing for your country in a World Cup," says the former full-back who now has a coaching role in Argentina's youth squad.
He worries about the state of the game here and the financial pressures on young players - from families and coaches - to succeed, which invariably means getting a contract with a big European club side.
But for now, like the rest of the nation, he is riding a wave of enthusiasm.
"Brazil was always our biggest rival, and to win a World Cup there would be something indescribable. There's a certain love-hate relationship."
Messi and perhaps Angel di Maria apart, this Argentine side has reached the World Cup semi-finals without playing the flamboyant football of the past.
Fans who had initial doubts about their team's abilities now converge on the capital's famous 9th of July Avenue after every victory.
The country's problems for now forgotten, they intend to be back here after Sunday's World Cup Final.