Mendoza, Argentina -- If you ask an Argentine, the United States Men's National Team is already through to the knockout stage of this summer's World Cup.
"The U.S. is a very good team," Gabo Laudadio said at an asado over the weekend. "They have gotten much better in the past few years. England is better, but the U.S. will advance as well."
This is an opinion shared by almost everyone in the country. It's also, of course, the perception that dominates our side of the world, but it's based on little in Argentina. While people in Central American and the Caribbean can universally name Landon Donovan and frequently some combination of Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Clint Dempsey, and a couple other American stars, barely anyone in the land of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona knows a single player who dons the Red, White, and Blue. With a robust domestic league, a massive amount of talent abroad, and a national team that rarely plays the U.S, there's little reason to pay attention to the stars of the Stars and Stripes.
(In fact, Argentines know more about the NBA than they do about soccer in America. The reasons: San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili and Houston Rockets forward Luis Scola. Ask virtually any male in the country where he'd like to visit in the U.S. and he'll tell you three places: New York and the two Texas cities.)
In the Santiago, Chile airport, some teenagers clad in Pachuca jerseys wandered around with the resigned aimlessness of a group that desperately wanted to be elsewhere but knew they had to wait. They were one of the club's youth teams, en route to a tournament. What did they think of Jose Torres, who came up through their ranks and now plays on the senior side? Blank faces.
"We don't know that player," one of them said after they exchanged confused looks.
Torres, he's American. A midfielder. Scored a golazo against Puebla. Some call him "El Gringo."
"Oh, El Gringo!," they exclaimed. "We know him. He's a very skilled player." Left unsaid was that he was just one of many on the club. Perhaps it's a blessing that, at least in this tiny sample size, Torres didn't stand out because he chose to play for the Stars and Stripes.
But back to Argentina. The real question to ask isn't about the American team but rather: Quien es el mejor jugador: Maradona o Messi? Who is the better player: Maradona or Messi?
The answer might surprise you.
Almost everyone who was interviewed picked the modern star who's currently tearing up La Liga and the Champions League. Granted, most of the subjects were in their early 20s and can only relive the brilliance of Maradona through grainy video while images of his latest incarnation's exploits are beaming in stunning HD from Spain but the general argument sounded something like this version offered up by a college student name Guido Palmili:
"Messi's better. He's unstoppable right now. He needs to get better for Argentina, but that's Maradona's fault."
In the question of who's better, the last part of the statement holds the key. The memories of World Cup brilliance in 1986 and 1990 are being replaced, or at least diluted, by Maradona's struggles to coach the national side. Inevitably, discussion of the legend would turn to this fact: "Sure, he was a great footballer, but he can't coach. He needed help for us to qualify."
Of course, despite the obvious difficulties Maradona's had at the helm, the entire country knows he cannot be replaced. Being a hero to a nation ensures job security.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) covers the United States Men's National Team for Goal.com and will be reporting from the World Cup in South Africa.
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