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Leo has many accomplices in bid to become champion

Cristiano Ronaldo, on arrival, in Campinas

Argentina was ravaged in December and January, first by power outages and then by looting, after police officers left the streets unguarded as they protested for higher pay in a country beset by soaring inflation and hard economic times for much of the population.

But on the soccer field, Argentina boast enough striking riches to power the team to win the World Cup starting Thursday in Brazil.

There isn’t only Lionel Messi, although he is the best of them and the most beguiling player on the planet. At the 2010 World Cup, he sometimes looked to be alone for Argentina. This time, though, the team has a number of options, including Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Rodrigo Palacio and, from the wing, Angel di Maria.

None of those Argentine stars earn their fortune at home, where the soccer clubs struggle financially along with the rest of the nation.

Messi left for Barcelona at age 13. Aguero matured at Atletico Madrid and is now the darling of Manchester City; Lavezzi is Paris Saint-Germain property; Higuain is at Napoli, the club where the Argentine great Diego Maradona finished his career; Palacio plays for Inter Milan, and Di Maria for Real Madrid.

The gravitation from Argentina to Europe’s rich paymasters is a no-brainer. In 1986, when La Albiceleste won the World Cup in Mexico, only three of the starting 11 in the final were employed abroad. Today, only one man on the entire roster, the reserve goalie Agustin Orion, has no experience outside his homeland.

In part, that explains why Messi is not, yet, the idol back home that Maradona was.

It’s possible to imagine Messi dancing through an entire defence to score, as Maradona did in successive games, against England and Belgium, en route to the 1986 final in Mexico. But who would ever expect Messi to fist the ball into the goal, as Maradona did against England in Mexico?

That was the Maradona who once replied in an interview request with an eye-bulging rant, shouting in reference to the contested Falkland Islands, called Malvinas in Spanish, “Give us back the Malvinas, you blank-blank Britisher!”

At the time, Maradona was a symbol for his country. Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president, even flew to Italy to meet with his star and bestow upon him the title Ambassador for the Sporting World.

A year or so later, when Maradona’s drug dependency deepened, Menem and his sports secretary, Victor Lupo, said in an interview in Buenos Aires that they wanted to save “this boy” from himself. They hoped to pass a law to prevent teenage soccer players from transferring abroad and losing touch with their families.

The law was never passed.

Argentina’s clubs, like many across South America and Africa, had by then grown dependent on the money such trading of potential star players, even schoolboys, brought them. The Argentine soccer association president, Julio Grondona, said he would fight anyone, from Menem down, who tried to block that exchange.

Grondona, now 82, has led the Argentine association since 1979 and is the long-time chairman of Fifa’s finance committee.

He knows the mix of sports, sports politics and national politics better than most. He is now seeking Argentina’s second World Cup under his tenure, and its third since 1978, when the country, ruled at the time by a military junta, both staged and won the tournament.

Argentina is a country in which a Maradona or an Aguero can rise from the barrios, where there is often little in childhood to stop a child from practising soccer skills from dawn until dusk.

They might not be tall (Aguero measures 5 feet, 8 inches) but instinctively they know how to dodge and weave and strike the ball.

It’s a habit that has taken South Americans all over the world. And one that has brought them to perform better in World Cups in the Americas than Africans, Asians, Europeans or North or Central Americans. Of the seven World Cups held in the Americas, Brazil have won three times, Argentina twice, and Uruguay twice.

Absence simply makes the heart grow fonder to come back a winner.