On the streets and in Buenos Aires' pubs, a great mystery is baffling almost everyone.
Why is Argentina _ a storied soccer nation with arguably the world's No. 1 player and coached by icon Diego Maradona _ on the verge of missing next year's World Cup?
"I blame Maradona for part of it," said 24-year-old Fernando Duarte, standing on a corner in downtown Buenos Aires. "People are angry. I mean. It's hard to think of a World Cup without Argentina."
Two corners away, 30-year-old Sergio Flores picked another target for his wrath: millionaire players like Lionel Messi (Barcelona) Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Javier Mascherano (Liverpool) and Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid).
"They earn too much money, they play in Europe and I don't think their focus is the national team," Flores said. "Really, they've been miserable. Everyone can see it."
Argentina has won the World Cup twice, but the next few days will decide if the Gauchos even get to play in South Africa next year. Without Argentina, the World Cup would lack a certain edge, and sponsors and FIFA _ soccer's world-governing body _ would lose many glamorous stars.
Argentina plays Saturday at home against Peru _ the last-place team in South American qualifying _ and Wednesday at bitter rival Uruguay. Argentina needs to win them both. Anything less and it could be out of the World Cup, or facing a difficult playoff in November for a berth.
Also on Saturday, Chile plays at Colombia, Uruguay is at Ecuador and Paraguay is at Venezuela. On Sunday, Brazil plays at Bolivia with the final five qualifying matches set for Wednesday.
Brazil and Paraguay have already clinched two of the four automatic places from South America. Chile has 27 points followed by Ecuador with 23, Argentina with 22 and Uruguay and Venezuela with 21. Colombia has 20.
If Argentina finishes fifth it faces a playoff in November with the No. 4 team from North and Central America and the Caribbean for another berth. If it finishes sixth or lower, it's out.
Argentina's struggle is a mystery. But it's also a soap opera about 48-year-old Maradona and the love-hate relationship he carries on with most Argentines.
He basically had no coaching experience when he was named the national coach almost a year ago. His fame stems from winning the '86 World Cup for Argentina, winning Italy's Serie A twice with humble club Napoli, and his stature as one of the game's greatest players.
He's also infamous.
He was expelled from the '94 World Cup in the United States after testing positive for a "cocktail" of performance-enhancing drugs.
He was near death on a respirator five years ago after suffering a heart attack attributed to a cocaine overdose. And he's had gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.
He's a rogue who's always been forgiven. But as the losses mount, his status as a national hero seems to be diminished.
In six World Cup qualifiers under Maradona, Argentina has won only two, scored only six goals _ most of them coming in a 4-0 win over Venezuela. Argentina's last three qualifiers are all losses _ to Paraguay, Brazil and Ecuador.
"The same people who elevated Maradona to God-status are the ones who are destroying him now," wrote columnist Reynaldo Sietecase in Thursday's edition of the newspaper "Critica."
Earlier this week Maradona threatened to resign after the next two matches _ even if Argentina reaches the World Cup. In a poll the next day by "Critica," 75 percent said he should go _ no matter what.
His erratic behavior has always made headlines, and now it seems to be hurting team confidence. Maradona has called up 76 players in a year, and the team seldom practices until late afternoon because Maradona says he likes to sleep late.
Last month, without telling anyone, including the president of the Argentine federation _ Julio Grondona, who hired him _ Maradona disappeared for 11 days to an Italian spa to lose weight and escape the stress back home.
During his stay, Italian authorities confiscated earrings worth $5,900 as partial payment for a tax bill.
"Everything around Maradona seems to be a problem," said a young man who identified himself only as Juan Carlos, speaking outside an Irish pub on Reconquista Street. "He finds trouble, that's for sure."
About half the starters will be different from the team that lost the last three games. The goalkeeper is likely to be Sergio Romero, one of three Maradona has used. It will be only his second match for the national team.
Tevez has run into problems with Maradona and is likely to be on the bench. He's been forced to defend himself over charges he's got giving 100 percent. Messi has also been ripped, usually looking adrift when he plays for Argentina.
"They say we are comfortable and rich and don't think enough about the team," Tevez said a few days ago. "Do you really think when we play for the national team we just care about the millions we have in the bank?"
Peru defender Carlos Zambrano summed up what's at stake for Argentina. A loss to Peru could be the final blow, the most humiliating loss of all against South America's weakest team.
"What I want is to beat Argentina," he said. "Those Argentine players will be crying and watching the World Cup next year on television."