Home Soccer A NATION WAITS, PRAYS. . . For Messi, Argentina, this is more...

A NATION WAITS, PRAYS. . . For Messi, Argentina, this is more than football

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BUENOS AIRES. – Crowds in Buenos Aires regularly take to the streets in protest against Argentina’s economic problems.

But, the country’s thrilling football campaign has instead encouraged thousands to come out in expectation that their hero Lionel Messi will lead them to a third World Cup triumph.

Agustín Portillo joined revellers dancing in the rain on Friday as a tropical storm burst over Buenos Aires after Argentina beat the Netherlands to set up a semi-final clash against Croatia tonight.

“Football is our salvation. Everything around us is getting worse, yet this week we’re all joyful,” said Portillo, 22, whose generation has never seen Argentina crowned world champions.

Across the capital every inch of window space is filled with the national colours of sky blue and white, while in Qatar the team has been backed by one of the noisiest and most passionate travelling contingents.

Against a backdrop of a battered economy and political dysfunction, the weight of the nation of 46mn lies on Messi’s narrow shoulders.

Inflation in Argentina is expected to reach 100 percent in the year to this month.

Poverty rates have increased, forcing some to move abroad.

The centre-left Peronist government, cut off from international markets, is building up unsustainable debts on costly subsidy programmes, while supporters of vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner threaten further protests after her conviction last week on corruption charges.

If the team were crowned champions next Sunday in Qatar, fans say it would prove that Argentina “is right up there” with other countries and reflect well on how they see themselves as a nation — “courageous, driven and full of suffering.”

National pride is also at stake for Messi, the country’s one truly international hero.

Aged 35, it is the last chance he will have to prove he can be compared to the late Diego Maradona, whose death in 2020 has cast a shadow over what will probably be Messi’s last ever World Cup.

To usurp Maradona as the greatest ever Argentine player, fans said, Messi must lead the Argentina team to two more victories in the same way Maradona steered the Albiceleste to glory at the 1986 World Cup.“Diego is watching us from heaven,” Messi said after the match on Friday.

“He is pushing us. I hope it stays like that until the end.”

Julio Roger, 51, head waiter at Caffé Tabac in Buenos Aires where Maradona was a regular customer, said the tournament had felt different this year because of both his death and the mounting economic challenges.

People are placing “huge importance” on the event, he said. “The illusion of greatness has returned with full force” even for those who do not care for football, Roger said. “We’re in a very bad [economic] state . . . this brings hope, relief

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