Jorge Saenz / AP
Sunday, July 13, 2014 | 1:18 p.m.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Thousands of soccer-obsessed Argentines watched nervously as their national team battled three-time champion Germany to a 0-0 draw in the first half of the World Cup finals.
Entering the match as the clear underdog after Germany's 7-1 thrashing of host Brazil, Argentina nonetheless looked determined in the first 45 minutes of play.
In a packed Plaza San Martin, where fans climbed atop lamp posts to catch a glimpse of the match on a giant screen, a crowd of some 20,000 people came to life and shouted with anguish every time the team led by captain Lionel Messi entered German area.
"This is an incredible emotion," said Jesica Arguello, who watched the match with her 7-year-old son. "I told my son that when he has kids he should tell them about this day."
Argentina last played in a World Cup final in 1990, when it lost to West Germany. Four years earlier, it became world champion for the second time led by captain Diego Maradona, also in a final against the Germans.
Fans wearing the white and sky-blue striped jerseys of the national team began gathering early Sunday at the iconic Obelisk in Argentina's capital in anticipation of the afternoon game.
"I had insomnia and had trouble waking up," Debora Chanal, 27, said. In her arms, she held a statue of Argentine folk saint Gauchito Gil, which wore a sash in the country's colors and was draped in a small national flag.
"I dreamed it last night: We're going to win. Gauchito Gil is going to help us with the World Cup," Chanal said.
Her 6-year-old son Leonel stood next to her wearing an Argentine jersey stamped with a 10 — the number of Argentine captain Lionel Messi. "Messi is my favorite player because he scores a lot of goals," the boy said. "I think he's going to score three today."
Many businesses around the country closed during the game, and in the capital thousands of fans poured into the streets to watch the match on giant screens. Many people got ready for game day celebrations by stocking up Saturday night on beef for traditional barbeques known as asados.
Over the weekend, hundreds of national flags in sky-blue and white were hoisted along normally busy avenues that fell quiet during the match.
Giant posters with a smiling Messi seemed to greet passers-by on almost every corner of Buenos Aires, where the Argentine team's jerseys were among the most sold items in sports stores.
Even a jersey for dogs — stamped with Messi's number 10 — was nearly sold out at a boutique for pets. "We only have two shirts left," said Karen Reichart, owner of the Amores Perros store.
"Argentina is a football-mad country. I'm not afraid of Germany," Reichart said before traveling to Brazil early Sunday to watch the final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium.
The shot at the title has united Argentines otherwise exasperated by one of the world's highest inflation rates, an encroaching debt crisis and a corruption scandal that has penetrated deep into President Cristina Fernandez's inner circle.
Fernandez, whose approval rating has plunged in recent months, kept a low profile during the tournament. She declined an invitation to attend the final, preferring instead to rest ahead of a summit Tuesday, also in Brazil, with leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and China.
"In Argentina, even the political turmoil has been covered up because it's huge that we're back in the final after 24 years," Reichart said. "We obviously want the Cup, but being (in the final) is already amazing."
The sentiment was shared by many. On Sunday morning, a group of men gathered at the Buenos Aires Obelisk jumped up and down to the beat of a drum and chanted: "Ole, Ole! We're going to win, we will beat the Germans in the final!"
"We didn't sleep last night, we came straight from partying here," said Gabriel Fernandez, 28. "We're confident. We know we have a difficult team ahead of us, but we have Masche and he's an Argentine pureblood," he said about Javier Mascherano, the gutsy defensive midfielder who has fired up Argentina for its best World Cup performance since 1990.
Plastic replicas of the World Cup, Messi masks and striped white and blue scarves were among best-sold items for vendors along Buenos Aires' 9 de Julio Avenue.
"We got here through faith and guts and we can win," said 31-year-old vendor Natalia Alanis. "Besides, we have the pope!" she said with a laugh, referring to the Argentine-born pontiff Francis.
Some fans arrived in a pickup truck several minutes later, and a man dressed in white papal-like robes stood in the back, waving an Argentine flag and pretending to bless a crowd that formed around the vehicle.