After a performance of bewitching guile against Nigeria, Lionel Messi was hugged in the dressing room by his team-mates, kissed on the forehead by Juan Sebastián Verón – and then from a late arrival, the manager Diego Maradona, came a bellowing cry: "Grand, Leoooooo!"
Sometimes Messi has looked a little lost and unloved in the albiceleste's colours. No more. This Argentina squad, like everyone else, know he holds the key to their World Cup chances. After the game Messi was hailed as "incredible, fantastic, unbelievable" by Jonás Gutiérrez and described as "special" by Verón – while Maradona was quick to assure everyone back home: "As long as he has fun close to the ball, then we will all be fine."
The most comforting words for Argentinians came from Messi himself, who flatly denied suggestions he is suffering from tiredness and a persistent muscle strain. "It's all a lie; at no time did I have anything," he said. "Thank God I'm good."
Messi was more than good against Nigeria. He ran the show, scampered repeatedly past opponents and created numerous chances for his team-mates and himself, only to see them pawed, blocked or tipped away by Nigeria's goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. And although Argentina were unable to add to Gabriel Heinze's sixth-minute goal, Messi hinted afterwards that there is more to come.
"I knew that once we got to South Africa everything would be different," he said. "I felt comfortable, I think I have great players alongside me so that gives me the chance to play well.
"We no longer have the pressure of the qualifiers. We knew we had to demonstrate how good we are and we did that. I am happy with the triumph and the game we played. We created many chances. We could have scored a few more, but the important thing was to win. I am very happy and very proud."
There is probably not a team in this tournament laden with as much attacking talent as Argentina, but on Saturday the defensive foundations creaked whenever the team were put under strain. Maradona's 4-3-3 allowed Gonzalo Higuaín, Carlos Tevez and Leo Messi to play together, supported by Angel di María, but it also led to the switching one of his favourites, Gutiérrez, from left wing to right-back.
At best, it was a hands-over-eyes failure. Gutiérrez repeatedly got sucked in towards his centre-halves, was nervous in the tackle, never got forward, and – on this evidence – has as much chance of converting to right-back as the queen has to Catholicism. But Maradona refused to address Gutiérrez's performance directly afterwards, instead claiming: "This is the system we need."
Doubts must also remain about the ability of Verón to cut it as a holding-midfielder-cum-playmaker at the age of 35. By the time he went off in the second half with a minor leg injury he had shown that while the eye for a killer ball remains, so does the tendency to spray a lobbed pass to no one in particular. But he clearly has Maradona's ear – he regularly discussed tactics with him during the match – and is a certain starter against South Korea on Thursday.
You sense that Argentina could lose to the first well-organised team they meet, unless their attacking armoury starts firing at full throttle, but Maradona remains unconcerned.
"I am not worried about the chances we missed against Nigeria," he said. "If we kept our powder dry for the next games, it's all good. But it's important that we did get the victory and the team produced interesting combinations in attack.
"OK we couldn't to finish all of them off. So we finished the game struggling a bit in a game that normally when you miss so many clear goals you end up drawing. It's the law of football, really. Thank God today that didn't happen.
"We worked a lot on our finishing during the week and then you see Leo, Pipa [Higuaín], Carlitos [Tevez], Kun [Sergio Agüero] and [Martín] Palermo, everyone was putting the ball between the sticks. That didn't happen, unfortunately.
"We couldn't translate in the result what our game deserved. But undoubtedly to starting a World Cup by winning, as we did, gives you tranquillity for the next game."
And Argentina's manager believes this is only the start of his team's adventure in South Africa. "When you win and you leave with a good result, you get in the habit," he said. "When the players win games they will need to win every day. It happened in 1986 and 1990." And 2010?
Fifa, meanwhile, has told security officials at Ellis Park to investigate an incident where a supporter apparently shone a laser pen on to the pitch and in the direction of the players and the dug-outs during the game.
The green beam was directed towards a number of people – including Messi – as well as Maradona. A statement issued by Fifa said: "We noticed this incident once and immediately asked the stadium security to look into the matter.
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