If the World Cup trophy were awarded purely on the basis of riveting melodrama and epic theatre, Argentina would already be celebrating their lap of honour around Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
A stunning late volley from that unlikeliest of heroes, Marcos Rojo, was a fitting way to end a group stage filled with strife, conflict, disappointment and a backdrop of intrigue and shady operations that at times appeared to have been lifted straight from a Cold War spy novel, but with WhatsApp audio messages of dubious provenance replacing the coded messages left in abandoned briefcases.
Rojo's strike turned that bruised, battered side from zero to hero within the space of a few seconds, keeping their World Cup dream alive at least until Saturday morning. A triumph, it would seem, for those qualities that are always trumpeted by those who revel in the Selección's successes: a never-say-die spirit, players willing to put their life on the line for the sake of their nation, and abundant quantities of huevo (balls) that more than compensate for any technical failings.
Former Argentina captain Javier Mascherano embodies that stereotype. At 34 and with his best years at Barcelona long behind him as he plays out these final stages of his career in the cash-rich, talent-poor climes of the Chinese Superleague, Masche is a pale shadow of that all-action midfielder who made such an impact in Argentina's path to the final four years ago in Brazil.
But even after a poor performance against Nigeria that included a potentially catastrophic conceded penalty the veteran was still held up as the symbol of this battling team – blood gushing from a wound inflicted near his left eye, he still kept going to help his team triumph at the bitter end. Make no mistake, Mascherano's dedication to the cause even when his body and his abilities are on the decline is laudable. But elevating the midfielder to godlike status is to once more misdiagnose what almost led Argentina to World Cup oblivion prior to Tuesday's 2-1 win and salvation. Huevo there may be to spare, but fluent football has been in extremely short supply.
In a much-quoted article published in The Guardian hours prior to those heroics against Nigeria, 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano bemoaned this reliance on 'balls' over collective play. Argentina, the retired forward lamented, reflect the “desire to fight [that] turns every game in the Argentine league into an indecipherable swarm like an ants’ nest, where someone kicks it and everyone runs more than they think, and where in the middle of it all it can be hard to work out who the good player is.
“The team appear lost, the rumours about internal conflicts spreading, and no one knows what is going on inside the head of Messi – one of the best-known men in the world but whose silences no one can interpret. If Argentina think their problems will be resolved by appealing to courage and fight, their emotional and footballing collapse will follow and with it their discipline.”
Valdano's argument is hardly original. The internal conflict between football purity and hard pragmatism and emotion dates far beyond Messi and Mascherano, back to the collapse of 'La Nuestra' in the 1958 World Cup debacle.
The ex-player may not like to remember it, but he was also on the wrong side of that debate during the 1980s when the cavalier César Luis Menotti publicly slammed his Argentina team coached by ultra-pragmatist Carlos Bilardo before and after that side's triumph in Mexico. In words that could just as easily have been directed at Jorge Sampaoli in these troubled days, Menotti called Bilardo a “coward and mental dwarf” in a savage attack, while Solo Fútbol's Carlos Marangoni accused the coach of “not respecting our football tradition.”
It is the sad fate of losing teams to find themselves in the eye of the storm; all of which, of course, do not invalidate Valdano's criticisms of a side that has looked stodgy and unimaginative at the best of times in Russia, with the added handicap of a troubling mental fragility that cost them dear against Croatia when the chips were down and came so close to spelling disaster in St. Petersburg.
Didier Deschamps France are another nation that enters the last 16 with doubts circulating. The coach has come under fire in some circles for failing to set the world on fire with one of the most talented squads in the entire competition, grounding out wins over Australia and Peru before finishing Group C with a turgid draw against Denmark that has no real contenders as the worst game of the World Cup so far.
But Les Bleus, for all their current deficiencies, are at least a stable, organised team that have proved near-impossible to break down: all that Argentina have not been to date.
Argentina are capable of upsetting the form book on Saturday and sending France home. But in order to do so they must forget about heroism and focus on keeping the ball at the feet of an Albiceleste player from start to finish. They must build on the budding creative partnership glimpsed between Ever Banega and Lionel Messi against Nigeria, and maintain complete focus to keep their shape even if the match takes an adverse turn.
A healthy dose of strength and courage will not go amiss either: but it is with their heads and feet, not their balls, that Argentina will progress to the quarter finals.