Buenos Aires: Argentina has been disjointed at the World Cup, relying heavily on Lionel Messi for its goals and a couple of narrow escapes. Messi's fellow forwards, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, have fumbled, and after Aguero was injured, his replacement, Ezequiel Lavezzi, played poorly enough that he was substituted.
But in recent days, it is not Messi who has monopolized the front pages of the nation's newspapers, but rather the gaunt face of his midfield partner, Angel di Maria.
Di Maria is emerging alongside Messi as Argentina's key to winning the World Cup.
"When Messi or di Maria gets hold of the ball, the panorama changes," Diego Latorre wrote in a newspaper column criticizing Argentina's lack of collective strategy under coach Alejandro Sabella.
Di Maria, 26, was instrumental in Argentina's final group match, a victory over Nigeria, but he became a national hero this week after scoring the late goal that beat Switzerland in the Round of 16. With only moments of extra time remaining, he galloped toward the edge of the area, received a pass from Messi and curled the ball into the bottom corner.
In its quarterfinal Saturday, Argentina will face Belgium, which beat the United States in the Round of 16. Messi and di Maria are from Rosario, home to Argentina's most fervent fans and a breeding ground for soccer talent: Five players on Argentina's roster were born there.
Di Maria considers the city so important to his development that he tattooed a phrase of gratitude to its streets on his arm.
Growing up in Rosario, di Maria was hyperactive. To channel his energy, a doctor suggested to his mother, Diana Hernandez, that he take up a sport. The family briefly considered karate, according to an interview Hernandez gave to a Spanish newspaper. But in Rosario, there was really only one option.
"We preferred he play soccer," Hernandez said.
Youth coaches molded di Maria's restlessness into a valuable attribute. He is a tireless runner, and Argentina's quickest player. Di Maria ran with such vigor during a World Cup qualifying match last year against Bolivia - played in the thin air of La Paz, 12,000 feet above sea level - that he needed to be given oxygen from a small cylinder.
"It's like he has four lungs, not two," said Domingo Fleitas, 53, a street hawker in Buenos Aires who was selling plastic figurines of Argentina's players. Fleitas had put posters of di Maria and Messi on the wall behind his makeshift stall.
"The only player that can relieve the pressure on Messi is di Maria," Fleitas added.
Di Maria quickly drew notice, and Rosario Central, one of the two big clubs in the city, signed him from a neighborhood team, El Torito. Central agreed to pay with 26 soccer balls for di Maria, who was 16 then, but according to lore the balls never arrived.
As he progressed through the Central youth system, di Maria also helped his father, a coalman, at work. He would shovel coal into sacks, then travel to training, arriving with blackened hands, according to Marcelo Trivisonno, one of his youth coaches.
Di Maria did not astonish observers in the manner of Messi, a prodigy who left for Barcelona when he was 13, or Aguero, who debuted in Argentina's first division when he was 15. Instead, at 16, di Maria was a substitute for Central's youth team.
"He wasn't among the best players," Trivisonno said in an interview.
But di Maria eventually earned a starting berth on the first team. Like most young talent in Argentina, he was briskly transferred to Europe. Di Maria signed with Benfica in Portugal when he was 19. He won a league title there, scored the winning goal for Argentina in the final of the Beijing Olympics, then moved to Real Madrid in 2010 in a transfer worth more than $30 million.
Last summer, when Real Madrid signed forward Gareth Bale - who, like di Maria, is left-footed - for a record fee of $132 million, it was widely expected that di Maria would be sold. But Carlo Ancelotti, the Real Madrid coach, liked what he saw in di Maria and found a way to accommodate him in central midfield.
The move was among the most important ones he made this season. Di Maria finished with 11 goals and 24 assists, and it was his penetrating run that led to Bale's key goal in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. Di Maria was named the game's most valuable player.
"I don't feel inferior to anybody," he said in a recent interview, when asked whether he felt inhibited by Bale and another teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo, who was voted the world's best player in 2013.
Similarly, for Argentina, he might be considered the least fantastic of the "fantastic four" that also includes Messi, Aguero and Higuain. But di Maria has excelled at the World Cup, where fans have chanted his nickname Fideo, which translates roughly as noodle, a reference to his lanky torso and lean face.
Some people predicted di Maria's influential performances. On the eve of the World Cup, Horacio Pagani, a renowned sports journalist in Argentina, explored how the country might win its first World Cup since 1986.
"Argentina has Messi," he wrote. "And it has di Maria."
© 2014 New York Times News Service