BUENOS AIRES - Football-obsessed Argentines sighed with relief on Wednesday as their national team squeaked into the World Cup, but a last-gasp victory did little to dispel disillusionment with coach Diego Maradona.
Argentina advanced to next year's tournament in South Africa with a 1-0 win over Uruguay, narrowly avoiding a play-off in a rocky World Cup campaign that has left Argentines questioning their nation's talisman.
"It's a relief, I feel okay about it. But we're not heading to the cup in good shape. Maradona as a player was everything, but he's really bad as a coach," said parking attendant Marcos Segura, 28, in Buenos Aires.
Expectations are high in Argentina, a traditional soccer powerhouse and twice world champion where national pride is strongly tied to soccer prowess.
Argentina and neighbouring Brazil usually easily qualify to go to the World Cup and Argentina's current national team includes some of the world's top players.
Silence fell over Buenos Aires as fans tuned into the match being played across the River Plate in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. Argentina needed a victory or a draw to guarantee not missing the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
"I was really scared Argentina would be eliminated, and it was close," said Marcelo Rodriguez, a 38-year-old lawyer, who watched the game in Argentine Atlantic beach resort city Mar del Plata.
Revered as Argentina's greatest player of all time, Maradona has struggled since taking over the team last year with no coaching experience, drawing criticism he isn't prepared to lead the team.
"The anguish is over: Argentina is going to the World Cup," Clarin newspaper's website said after the game.
Under Maradona the team has been plagued by lacklustre play despite having Barcelona striker Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the world's best player.
After winning some early friendlies, Argentina failed to maintain winning ways, even suffering a humiliating 6-1 loss to Bolivia, traditionally one of South America's weaker teams.
Some Argentine sports commentators suggested Maradona should step down even if the team managed to qualify, arguing the team needs a new direction to be a serious contender.
Argentines have been especially critical of Maradona as celebrated Argentine coaches led neighbouring rivals Paraguay and Chile to berths in the South Africa 2010 World Cup.
Many turned on Maradona in recent months, openly criticising him and questioning whether he had the discipline to turn his on-field wizardry into success as a coach.
"Up until now the national team has been a disaster, playing badly. And that's bad because Argentina is obsessed with football," said Luis Guerrero, 45, a bar manager in Buenos Aires.
To qualify, "we had to wait until the very last game."comments