As the passionate but disaster-prone history of Argentina football moves into one of its most dramatic passages in Berlin today an old and haunting question hangs over what could prove the most decisive battle of this World Cup.
It asks if the nation which travels so relentlessly between heaven and hell is really on the point of a beautifully uncomplicated triumph. Or something unspeakable, something capable of eviscerating the spirit of the land.
Germany, everyone agrees, represent a massive obstacle to the progress of the team that has captured the majority of neutral hearts with football that at times has soared like a suddenly released cage bird.
But then it is also true that Argentina, the birthplace of Alfredo di Stefano, Maradona, and the phenomenal but strangely underused Lionel Messi, have a tendency to reinvent themselves as their own mostly deadly opposition. This is why the blue-and-white horde that gather in the breathtakingly renovated Olympic stadium to beat their drums and sing their gaucho songs are, deep down, caught in a terrible indecision.
They do not quite know if their team is in the hands of a genius or a blockhead. Jose Pekerman, who has produced a squad of superb vintage, is showing a tormenting reluctance to release the extraordinary talent of Messi, and no one doubts that if he persists in this, and Jürgen Klinsmann's Germans prevail,he will pay a terrible price.
Not only will he be barred from the pantheon inhabited by winning coaches Cesar Menotti, the brilliantly innovative, chain-smoking conqueror in 1978, and Carlos Bilardo in the year of Maradona, 1986, he will be reviled in every corner of the Pampas and in all cities and pueblos and barrios of empty streets and single heartbeats today.
No one knows better the perilous journey that so quickly separates glory and the deepest pain than one of the coaches who worked with Pekerman yesterday in final preparations for a quarter-final which has caught the imagination of not just Germany and Argentina, but the entire football world.
Nestor Lorenzo, a defender, played for Argentina the last time they met Germany in a World Cup. It was the final in Rome 16 years ago. Argentina had already achieved what they threaten to do today, ejected the hosts on a night of clammy tension and deep poignancy in Naples. But Lorenzo remembers a sickening denouement. Argentina lost the final and their heads. Two players were sent off and Germany won with a disputed late penalty. Maradona, the joyful witness of the current, so far thrilling campaign, wept like a baby.
Lorenzo says: "It is a memory you try to put on one side, but I suppose it will always be there. It means that when I talk to the boys about this match with Germany I offer them one great warning. My greatest worry for our team, which has such talent, is the Germany mentality. I tell the boys, 'The problem is a big one - the German mentality never knows when it is beaten.' I harbour no bad feelings. Klinsmann was playing for Germany that night. I met him recently, shook his hand and he seemed like a nice man all these years down the road.
"The boys have to concentrate from beginning to end. They have to dominate the game in midfield, something that I think will be easier than in the game with Mexico. The speed, dynamism and ability of the Mexican players made our lives very difficult. Germany are much more predictable in the midfield, and we have to dominate them there, release all our creativity when the time is right. It will also help if this time God is on our side."
There again we have that dark side of the Argentinian football psyche, the sense of a belief that fate will undo them, if it possibly can. Yes, of course, there was the Hand of God in Mexico City, but that wasn't so much a favour as a rarely applied law of averages.
Yet maybe Pekerman's downbeat style, his almost Ramsey-like belief in the virtue of holding the team above the player, even if it is Messi or the volatile Carlos Tavez, has brought a new dimension to the natural brilliance of the Argentinian game. Maybe he has implanted a new and more trustworthy evenness of emotion, a certain rationality where before there was only an angry resolve to achieve justice for some of the most sublime talent football had ever seen.
The coach mostly guards against rhetoric when he speaks of football. Yesterday, he coolly assessed the strength of his opposition, saying: "The Germans have a lot of goal power and they are quick to go from defence to attack - and that's how they defend, they retreat very quickly with their midfielders. If we do not dominate them up front, we may find ourselves short of space, and if we sit too deep we will just be too far from goal. We have to be intelligent and orderly.
"People talk about this being the game of favourites but we have to be very careful because there are other good teams left in the tournament. There is France, and England against Portugal is another important match, and this is without mentioning Brazil, who were favourites before the start and continue to be so.
"I've always said we have to fight to be champions, we cannot expect anything just because we have talent. We must not think of anything else. One thing is certain. My team will give their hearts to honouring the memory of what Maradona did 20 years ago, and the team of '78 ... we will honour all the good teams, whether they won trophies or not."
Never before has the development of an outstanding Argentinian team been eyed so benevolently by their ultimate rivals Brazil. Ronaldinho says: "I do not fear Argentina but I like and admire the team." Part of his affection is to do with his warmth for his Barça team-mate Messi, his "little brother", and in Brazil, generally, there is a belief that this is a different Argentina, one that is more preoccupied with drawing out its talent than holding the demons at bay.
A veteran observer of South American football explains: "We have come to admire this team in a way differently than in the past. Brazilians have always embraced the jogo bonito - the beautiful game - as part of our lives, the best part, but they seem to fight it - and the best of themselves. But not this team. You see seem them play and if you love football you feel an uplift. But we are bewildered that Pekerman is not playing Messi and Tavez more - they are players of magic, they are players who can do anything you ask, and they are the kind that in Brazil we trust with everything."
Pekerman refuses to be drawn on the question of Messi's playing time. He prefers to speak of the controlling genius of Juan Roman Riquelme and how his "lads" have the discipline and the talent to "make history". Lads like Maxi Rodriguez, whose sublime left-footed winner stopped the wonderfully brave challenge of Mexico.
"That goal was for my grandfather and it left me flooded with craziness and adrenalin," says Rodriguez. "Grandpa took me to the training ground, like all grandfathers and father do, and told me to work on my left foot - he said I used it only for getting on the bus and there would be a day when I would need it for something more important on the football field. When I scored I looked to the sky and I thanked my grandfather." Maybe also a new - and kinder - God.
Final analysis: When they met in WC finals
1986 Argentina 3 West Germany 2
Diego Maradona had dragged Argentina into the final almost single-handedly, while West Germany had only beaten Mexico on penalties in the knock-out rounds. Yet they produced a minor classic. An uncharacteristically uncertain Toni Schumacher was beaten by Jose Luis Brown and Jorge Valdano. Then Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Rudi Völler scored in eight minutes, but as extra-time beckoned Maradona released Jorge Burruchaga for the winner.
1990 West Germany 1 Argentina 0
Both managers, plus four Germans and three Argentines survived from 1986 but that was the only similarity. West Germany had played well throughout, Argentina had scrambled through on the back of penalty shoot-outs and two wins in six games. Here they defended and kicked and eventually the Mexican referee dismissed Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Desotti, awarding a soft penalty in between converted by Andy Brehme.Reuse content