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As I write, it was 20 years ago on Friday. On June 22 1986 in Mexico City, Diego Maradona (1.68 metres tall) scored his two unforgotten goals against England. The first, with the “hand of God”, and the second, a 60-yard solo, were both triumphs of a peculiarly Argentine figure: the player so little and so spontaneous that he is known as “el pibe”, or “the boy”.

Argentina overproduces pibes. It has four at this World Cup. But since the pibe incarnate lifted the trophy in 1986, pibes have floundered. At times they seemed a redundant species. Suddenly, at this World Cup, they have won the first round for Argentina. With them around, final victory would by definition be in the Argentine manner.

Pibes are so Argentine that they have their own tango, “El sueño del pibe“ (“Dream of the pibe”), from 1943. In the song, which Maradona has sung, a youngster promises: “Dearest Mamita, I will earn money, I will be a Baldonedo, A Martino, a Boyé.” The tango concludes with his dream: “He took the ball, serene in his action, Ran past everybody till the goalkeeper, And with a hard shot he became the marksman.”

The song not only foresees Maradona’s pibe-goal against England, but also the revenge. When Michael Owen (1.73m) slalomed past big Argentine defenders in Saint Etienne, France, in 1998, England’s fans didn’t know what they were seeing, but Argentines nodded sadly, and said, “The English have found a pibe.”

Maradona was a “number 10”, a playmaker. As midfields grew overpopulated, coaches became reluctant to let the pibes play there. Bigger men took over the terrain. Juan Sebastian Veron covered it for Argentina at the last World Cup.

Pibes were banished to bench or wings, where Ariel Ortega (1.70m) had a frustrating time in Japan. His fellow “new Maradona”, Marcelo Gallardo (also 1.70m), only ever started one game at a World Cup.

Then came José Pekerman, the taxi driver turned most successful youth coach ever turned Argentine manager. Pekerman won three youth World Cups with Argentina, and watching from the stands here, you would guess from his players’ physiques that he was coaching another boys’ team.

Pekerman has relocated the pibe to striker. There the boy is freer than on the wing, and less obliged to run around tackling big men than in midfield. Pekerman has been starting Javier Saviola (1.69m) up front.

In return, Saviola has provided evidence that there is life after death. At the youth World Cup of 2001, he was named best player, inheriting the title of “new Maradona”. Saviola joined Barcelona but flopped as “number 10”, and gradually descended to Sevilla. Now he is again demonstrating the pibe’s gift of seeing spaces that in an instant will be occupied by ball or team-mate.

The reserves Lionel Messi (1.70m thanks to growth hormones) and Carlos Tévez (1.68m) occasionally stand in for Saviola. Argentina’s Página 12 newspaper says: “People fear that the Selección could go through the World Cup without its two most beloved players playing much.”

It’s a fear we all share. Tévez, because he plays his club football in Brazil, is presenting Europeans with
a thrill once common at World
Cups: the discovery of a new genius.

Messi is the complete pibe: a player who can dribble at pace, see spaces, likes scoring and best of all, is undersized. Jorge Valdano, the Argentine footballer turned coach turned poet of football, says: “He expresses very well the collective dream of Argentine football.”

Against Holland on Wednesday, Messi and Tevez were allowed to start as strikers. In bygone times Messi would have been a playmaker, and against Holland he gave Argentina’s best passes. However, Pekerman reserved the number 10 for his tallest outfield placer of the night: Juan Riquelme (1.82m). This is controversial. Riquelme, not quick enough to escape markers, rarely got into the Dutch game.

Valdano says: “He’s a player from the time when life was slow and we sat on the pavement in chairs chatting to passers-by. It’s as if Riquelme knows the forgotten rules of football.”

Some would like Pablo Aimar (1.70m) to replace him. In fact, many Argentines hope to see all the pibes gambolling together. Julio Grondona, eternal chairman of the Argentine Football Association, advises these people: “Go and see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves instead.”

For 15 years, Argentine football practised necrophilia, the worship of a “dead” player. “Maradona” remains the favourite name on the backs of Argentine fans here. But at last it’s understood that there is no “new Maradona”: an afterlife yes, reincarnation no. Only an entire generation can replace Maradona. If one pibe fails, send on reinforcements.

A nation watches entranced. A columnist in Argentina’s Clarín newspaper writes that “Buenos Aires must be the city in the world where the World Cup is being lived most”. They are dreaming of pibes.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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