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Argentina's World Cup woes

Five Aside
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 By Sam Kelly

'Messi is Messiah' and other reactions from Argentina qualifying for Russia

The FC crew debate how much a World Cup should factor into Lionel Messi's standing among the greatest players of all time.
U2 front man Bono saluted Lionel Messi following his match winning performance against Ecuador.

"Messi is Argentine," screamed the front page of daily sports paper Ole on Wednesday, echoing perhaps the three most immediately relevant words of Jorge Sampaoli's news conference from the night before. Lionel Messi dominated the postmatch reaction almost as much as he dominated Argentina's 3-1 win away to Ecuador.

Even away from Ole -- the country's only daily dedicated solely to sport -- the big newspapers lent their covers over to the nation's hero. "The genius that is Messi has put us into the World Cup" was Clarin's headline, while La Nacion opted for: "Thanks to Messi."

La Nacion contributor and former Argentina international Diego Latorre put it best: "In the worst possible conditions ... Messi once again showed all his rebelliousness and class, and in so doing he transmitted it to his teammates."

Pagina 12's front page, meanwhile, opted for an image of Messi's face superimposed on an image of Jesus Christ, and the headline "El Messias," Spanish for -- as you probably can guess -- "The Messiah."

That last headline is hardly the most original, but it's one that's been frequently used by Argentine fans in the last few years. Images of Messi as the Messiah or a saint have inspired more than a few memes on social media, as did the simultaneous failure of Chile -- a nation with which Argentina has always felt a degree of enmity which has only been exacerbated by the pair's recent meetings in the finals of the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa Centenario -- to qualify.

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The Obelisco, the main monument to Argentine independence in downtown Buenos Aires, is always a focus for fans when their team enjoys success, so inevitably some supporters spilled out of nearby bars to celebrate after the game, even if the hundreds who did so were understandably far less than the estimated half a million who inundated the surrounding avenues after Argentina finished runners-up at the last World Cup.

By and large, though, Argentines aren't big on watching matches in bars -- it's not an unknown practice, but fans visiting from English-speaking countries are frequently surprised by how few do it -- and instead choose to watch in their living rooms, or those of friends.

Those of us watching on satellite television (with the signal taking a crucial few seconds longer to reach our screens) had all three of Messi's goals spoiled by neighbours rushing out to balconies to scream in joy, thumping the walls or -- in the case of the unlucky few who were driving during the game -- honking horns as they (presumably) listened on the radio. Those with only a passing interest who were at the gym or other activities commented that they were able to track the scoreline by counting the yells from nearby buildings.

And what of the fans? Similar to the front pages, praise for Messi is universal.

"Messi saved Argentina from the sporting and economic disaster that not heading to the World Cup would have been," said River Plate fan Andres, though he also pointed out that it's not all good news. "A lot of things need to be changed still, in the team and also at the Argentine FA, but as we've qualified it's hard to imagine those will happen. Still, it was good to see [River midfielder] Enzo Perez -- I think including him was the first really big correct decision of [Jorge] Sampaoli's time in charge."

It's worth noting, though, that opinions on which players should feature are by no means split solely down club rivalry lines. Boca Juniors fan Fran also feels there's a River player who deserves a chance.

"[Dario] Benedetto has been fantastic for Boca," he said, "but he has looked nervous with the Argentine shirt on. I'd like to see [former River forward Lucas] Alario given another chance, as Mauro Icardi has also failed to impress."

Lionel Messi's reaction after Argentina's clinching victory over Ecuador was similar to the celebrations throughout the country.

As for the new manager, Fran adds: "I think if Sampaoli can work out two or three tactical alternatives, and find a set starting XI, we'll have a decent chance at the World Cup. I like his attacking style, but I do worry at times about the three-man defensive line."

Fellow Boca fan Gabriel agrees, saying: "I'd prefer a back line of four. But Sampaoli took over at a very tough time, so I'd prefer to let him work for a while and then get back to you as to my thoughts on him. I will say I'm not a fan of the 'show' he puts on during games, holding his head and jumping around like a madman."

Valentina had praise for the rest of the team. "I didn't see the first half, but at least in the second half, which I did see, it didn't seem like a bunch of players trying to be Maradona and win the game on their own. I was so happy to see that it wasn't a bunch of mini-Maradonas! Messi was awesome as always, but more to the point the team around him actually functioned."

She feels the team has been "in a rut," but says the quarterfinals should be a realistic aim.

Valentina's mother, Graciela, also had praise for the team. "In previous games, Messi had to drop back to midfield to get the ball, which is ridiculous -- yesterday it suited him better, he was able to get the ball higher up and score, which is what he does best," she says. "He needs to be in a partnership with someone, and those players have changed too much from game to game -- Sampaoli has to stop changing the team, and give them a run of matches with the same game plan."

Perhaps the most famous fan of the national team, Diego Maradona, has often criticised Messi, but made a visible show of support on Tuesday night via Instagram, posting a picture of Messi with the words (in Spanish) saying: "Our sky blue and white is still respected around the world!"

Estoy muy contento porque seguimos manteniendo el respeto del mundo a la celeste y blanca!

A post shared by The Official Diego Maradona (@_diegomaradona_10) on

Now the nightmare of qualifying is over, Maradona and many others are optimistic that the best is yet to come.

Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com

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