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Erratic Argentina has one weapon every opponent fears: Lionel Messi

This story appeared in the May 31, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.

***

Lionel Messi is not happy. Why is not clear at first, because, as all Spain knows on this cool, sparkling November day, the 22-year-old Argentine soccer god should be ecstatic. Last night his club team, Barcelona, beat archrival Real Madrid before a home crowd of 90,000, and tomorrow looks to be even better: Word has leaked that Messi will be awarded the Golden Ball as 2009 European Footballer of the Year. His annual income, including endorsements, is $46 million. His team is dominating La Liga, the Spanish first division. His game is rounding into breathtaking form.

Still, look at him: hunched in a chair like a kid hauled into the principal's office, pausing after each question to glance at his manager-brother, Rodrigo, as if to say, Can you get me out of here? Now? The clock is ticking: This is shaping up to be the worst Q and A in history.

Adidas had offered up its soccer show pony for a 30-minute chat, but once it became clear that the discussion would touch on the Argentine national team and its tempestuous coach, Diego Maradona, a coolness set in. The 30 minutes were abruptly slashed to 15, and Messi spent the first 5½ giving clipped and preemptively bland replies. Now Maradona's name pops up, tucked into the idea that it must be both tiresome and flattering to be compared with perhaps the greatest player in history. Messi's face hardens: Here's the ball he's been waiting to boot out-of-bounds.

"What's tiresome," he says in Spanish, "is always being asked the same question."

The words hang in the air a few seconds; then Messi is asked how it has been to play for the man. "I'm sorry," the Adidas marketing man says, "we have to leave the Maradona questions aside. He's trying to change to another topic."

So Messi doesn't want to talk about Maradona -- his father's idol, the playing genius he eerily resembles, the combustible force who controls Messi's hope of winning the 2010 World Cup -- at all? "No," the sneaker man says. "Try to understand that he now is answering all these questions about Maradona, Maradona, Maradona. He's tired of replying always about Maradona."

Such news hardly comes as a shock. Their marriage has felt strained since September 2008, a month before Maradona took over, when he clucked, "Sometimes Messi plays for himself; he feels so superior that he forgets his teammates." The Albiceleste's campaign to qualify for the World Cup was a dispiriting slog marked by ever-changing lineups, bewildered stars and debacles like a 6-1 loss in Bolivia. Messi, who scored four goals in 67 minutes against Arsenal on April 6, mustered only one in 10 qualifiers under Maradona. Last October, after Argentina squeaked by Uruguay to make the field, Maradona held a press conference and told his critics to "suck it and keep sucking," for which he received a two-month ban by FIFA. Relief, elation, dread? By day's end, lovers of Argentine football had no idea what to feel.

No one looked more drained than Messi. Too often during qualifying he had appeared listless and had flown back to Barcelona in a funk. "Very down -- you could see it," says one Barça staffer. "[Argentina] was playing defensively, and he was alone up front. You had to wonder, Is Maradona sabotaging him?"

But Maradona wasn't the only one being ripped. Messi too was blamed for Argentina's woeful play, and he found himself living a paradox: Even as people around the world likened his work in Barcelona to that of magicians such as Pelé and Johan Cruyff, back home Messi heard only a chorus of skepticism. Fans and the media questioned not only his ability to produce under the ultimate spotlight but also his allegiance, his very Argentineness. As good as Diego? Win a World Cup like he did in 1986 -- then we'll compare.

"More than 100 players were called up for the national team, and only one was to blame?" says Messi's father, Jorge. "It's unfair. Leo has never gotten used to the situation here in Argentina. It's really tough for him to be in Barcelona, where he's really loved, and then come here and hear all that criticism."

In theory, of course, Maradona figured to be a vital resource for Messi. Who, after all, is better positioned to give advice -- superstar to superstar -- on the Argentine press and on the burden and joy of being the best player alive? Who better to warn Messi how hangers-on and yes-men (like the comically sycophantic band of "Sí, Diegos" who surround Maradona) can siphon off his money and speed the erosion of his gift? But when Messi is asked whether Maradona has ever taken him aside to offer a word on handling fame or fortune or any of the other pitfalls of his position, he doesn't bristle. This question he keeps in play.

"In truth," Messi says, "no."

***

Even when the topic shifts, Messi gives little away. He says he "dreams of winning all the titles," admits that he cried upon leaving home at 13 to play in Barcelona and declares, "I never get nervous before I play," but all of it is delivered in a curt monotone, with nothing resembling Pelé's playfulness or Cruyff's imagination. This is nothing new; reporters have been banging their heads against Messi's reticence for years. He is not so much hostile to the press as uninterested in the subject of himself; he barely lit up earlier today for the Adidas film crew, in town for an in-house interview, and the company is paying him $4 million a year.

Shyness can be underrated, however, especially at a time when every emerging jock is dancing and tweeting in a desperate grab to "become a personality" and "expand his brand." The fact is, with a talent as otherworldly as Messi's, charm would be a distraction. Miles Davis played a diabolic trumpet with his back to the audience, and that was more than enough; any hint of charisma would have blown the roof off the place. Maradona's career, meanwhile, played out like a war between a glorious body and a corrupted mind; when, in 1994, his days as an international player ended in disgrace after he failed a World Cup drug test, the personality seemed to have consumed the player whole.

Diamond earrings flashing, waistline ballooning, marriage falling apart, Maradona soon became a cartoon figure. He had an image of Fidel Castro tattooed on his left thigh and one of Che Guevara on his right arm, got his stomach stapled, wore a swastika-emblazoned T-shirt that condemned George W. Bush. His life became Argentina's favorite telenovela; his quotes entered the lexicon. "Keep sucking!" is a popular ringtone; it's no shock to hear Maradona barking, "¡Sigan chupando!" in a Buenos Aires bar and see men reach for their phones.

So it's refreshing to find Messi's off-field act to be conspicuously anti-Diego: mall haircut, hangdog slouch, no jewelry or body art. Throw in the nickname La Pulga -- the Flea -- and Messi comes off like the guy who rotates your tires. "Maradona swaggers," says Carles Rexach, a former Barcelona player and coach. "Messi doesn't want to be noticed."

Yet on the field no one else resembles Maradona more. It's not just that at 5'7", Messi is the same diminutive whirlwind, "able to dribble past people like they are not there," as Barça striker Thierry Henry puts it. There's also the uncanny coincidence that against the Spanish club Getafe in 2007, Messi unleashed a wonder score identical to Maradona's so-called Goal of the Century against England in that '86 World Cup: a 60-meter sprint past the same number of opponents (six), involving the same number of touches (13) and lasting the same number of seconds (13). Then, seven weeks later, Messi replicated Maradona's notorious Hand of God goal by punching in a score against Espanyol. "I make an effort not to compare them," says Jorge Valdano, director general of Barça's archrival, Real Madrid, "but the kid doesn't help at all."

Messi has claimed to have read only one book, Maradona's autobiography, Yo soy el Diego de la gente (I Am the People's Diego), but said he didn't finish it. Clearly, he's stuck in Maradona's glory years. In 2009 he won his second Champions League, second La Liga and first Copa del Rey titles with Barça and became Argentina's first FIFA World Player of the Year. This season he was unstoppable, with 53 goals in 47 matches as Barça won La Liga again. During one 11-game stretch he scored 17 times, including back-to-back La Liga hat tricks and the absurdly easy four goals against Arsenal. The Madrid newspaper El País dubbed him Infinity. Maradona declared that Messi was playing "kick-about with Jesus," but some soccer minds dared rate him even higher. "Tonight I saw Diego Maradona -- but at more revs per minute," said Zaragoza coach José Aurelio Gay in March after a Messi hat trick. "He's interplanetary."

Rexach believes Messi has the tools to surpass Maradona. And while Rexach acknowledges that Barça's brilliant playmakers Xavi and Andrés Iniesta help make Messi so prolific, he insists that Messi could thrive without them. "You put Messi on the worst team in the world, maybe for 10 minutes he won't touch the ball," Rexach says, "but in the 11th minute he'll dribble three times and score. Messi doesn't need anybody."

Bursting through seams no one else can see, staying on his feet despite being slashed by two or three defenders at once, Messi has indeed shifted Maradona's gambeta, his capering dribble, into a higher gear. Henry, 32, the lanky alltime leading goal scorer for France and one of the great players of his generation, can't find words to describe how Messi zips through and around opponents like a VW bug in a cluster of 18-wheelers. Finally he resorts to tapping out a staccato rhythm on a table. "He just goes -- like that," Henry says, drumming.

"People talk about basketball players, how they run full speed but they're in control of the ball with their hands, but that's way easier," Henry continues. "Running with the ball at your feet at full speed and being able to see, [being] aware of what is happening around you, [while] people are trying to make you fall? Leo is always kind of falling, but he doesn't go down. I would love to have his first step, and his double dribbles, but it's him being small [and] quick: He touches the ball every step of his run. It's impossible to do what he does. I go one-two-three, push the ball, one-two-three, push the ball. If I want to touch it every time, I [have to] slow down. But he can go full speed: Tack-tack-tack-tack, tack-tack-tack-tack." Henry throws up his hands. "I wish I was small," he says.

***

The easy conclusion, of course, is that the country is mad. Yes, anyplace can seem bizarre to a stranger, but let's agree that Argentina's lunacy is more obvious than, say, Denmark's. Argentina is, after all, the nation with the most psychoanalysts per capita; the country whose still-feverish devotion to a long-dead First Lady resulted in a town, Ciudad Evita, built in the shape of her head; the land where citizens fearlessly consume beef for breakfast or with afternoon coffee and erupt in street protests for any reason at all. On an April afternoon, for example, picketers halted rush-hour traffic on the highway into Buenos Aires, expressing outrage over the damage caused by a recent hailstorm. "Protesting the hail," said a lifelong resident with a shrug. "Of course."

Still, it's another thing for a country to indulge its own lunacy where its most prized possession is concerned. When in October 2008 longtime Argentina Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona named Maradona the national team coach, he made a choice that few could imagine his counterparts in England or Brazil or Germany making. It smacked of desperation and arrogance. It was confounding, exhilarating and, for a constituency accustomed to political and economic tumult, wholly appropriate.

"Argentina is used to living from crisis to crisis to crisis, and life always goes on," says Ezequiel Fernández Moores, a columnist for the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación. "Maybe it's crazy to put [Maradona] in that position, but maybe not. Sometimes it seems we love the crisis. We can't live without the crisis. Maradona is an icon of that."

Consider: One of international soccer's most storied programs, a two-time World Cup champion, was placed in the hands of a man with no international coaching experience and a paltry three wins in 23 matches during his sole stint as a club coach, with Argentina's Deportivo Mandiyú in 1994 and Racing Club in '95. Why? Speculation ranged widely: Maradona was owed the position for all he accomplished as a player; his popularity made it impossible for the AFA not to give him at least one shot; Grondona had feuded with or rejected other candidates and, when Alfio Basile resigned, Maradona was the only one Grondona could stomach.

Grondona declined to talk to SI, but in a rare newspaper interview last August he mentioned Maradona's deep knowledge of international soccer and of the Argentine talent base. "Though a standout player himself, he's never been selfish," Grondona said. "He has a natural authority over those players who saw him on the pitch or read about him. Moreover, he has a freedom of spirit that is really strange for any other coach."

Strange indeed. Maradona's curious stewardship has the nation peeking through its fingers. Grondona appointed Carlos Bilardo, who directed Maradona and Argentina to the country's last world championship, in 1986, as the team's general manager, but there were times when Bilardo and his coach barely spoke -- and the 49-year-old Maradona has since emerged firmly in charge. He won an early battle to choose his own assistants, though his former teammates Alejandro Mancuso and Héctor Enrique hardly make up for their boss's inexperience on the international stage. (Enrique's standing stems mostly from passing Maradona the ball for his historic second goal against England in '86.) The sole evidence that Maradona's soccer eye remains sharp is his stubborn championing, amid much criticism, of surprisingly steady 23-year-old goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Argentina will open the World Cup, then, as the tournament's most perplexing team. Grouped with Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, the Albiceleste should make it to the knockout stage, but Maradona has yet to show he knows how to maximize Messi's performance. The coach has alienated midfielder Juan Román Riquelme, the often self-involved Boca Juniors midfielder whose synergy with Messi led the Albiceleste to the 2007 Copa América final and the '08 Olympic gold medal. According to Hernán Castillo, the onetime soccer writer for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín, who now covers the national team for Radio La Red, the players' respect for their coach dwindled when he played them out of position and showed a lack of knowledge about their opponents. Trailing 2--0 at the half of a humiliating loss to Brazil last September in Messi's hometown of Rosario, Maradona walked through the locker room saying, "Let's go! For the country! We can do it!" After he left, one of the team's veteran midfielders, knowing somebody had to make a tactical move, told Messi to play farther back and conferred with a few other teammates. Argentina attacked more effectively in the second half but still went down 3-1, for its first home defeat in a Cup qualifier in 16 years.

Whether Maradona lacks the imagination to make a wholesale strategic shift on Messi's behalf isn't clear. "If I had to change for his good, I'd change," Maradona said in March. "But I think that with ... the players we have, all he needs to do is explode, and surely he will do that at the World Cup." The coach declined to elaborate for SI; a request for an interview through the AFA was answered by Fernando Molina, Maradona's personal flack and the boyfriend of his daughter Dalma, with an e-mailed demand for "100,000 euros limpios" -- $126,000, tax-free. (SI does not pay for interviews.)

"They have many wonderful players, but they're not a team; I don't know what's going on right now," says Francisco (Pancho) Ferraro, coach of the Argentine under-20 team that Messi led to a world title in 2005. "We just have to hope God inspires Maradona ... and we have Messi. So we have reason to believe."

Maradona has been the most important cultural figure in the country for 25 years because, in his combination of brilliance and self-destruction, he reflects part of the national character in a way that Messi never could. It's not just that Messi hasn't performed well for the national side. It's his life inside what observers call "his football bubble." It's the widespread perception that because Messi, a product of Barcelona's streamlined youth academy, La Masía, has lived for the past decade in Spain, he has almost no gut-level connection with the nation now depending on him.

"He went to Europe at 13, and he went to the perfect team," says Fernández Moores. "In Argentina we have an expression: Lo atamo' con alambre -- 'We hold it together with wire.' It refers to a temporary solution that somehow works, and it says a lot about the country and its football. Argentine players grow up with the precarious sensibility that they can adapt to any situation, but Messi doesn't pass the Argentine test of living on the edge. He didn't grow up thinking that way, and he doesn't like problems.

"When he came back to Argentina last year, the person waiting for him, controlling the press, was a barrabrava -- a hooligan, not an AFA official. That's the Argentine style. In that sense, Maradona is perfect as coach."

And that's why, if Argentina bombs out of this World Cup, Maradona will not be blamed alone. Messi bears the expatriate's burden, and speculation about his woes in the national stripes centers less on strategy than on what goes on in his heart and mind.

"It's the question everyone is asking," says Sergio Almirón, a member of the '86 World Cup team and, as former director of the football school of the Rosario club Newell's Old Boys, one of the men who let the young Messi slip away. "When Maradona got challenged, he got bigger. Maybe Messi is too young and can't cope with that pressure." Almirón pauses, decides to say what he really thinks and starts to laugh. "He has a Spanish mind," Almirón says at last. "He thinks he's Spanish!"

***

A crisp April morning in Rosario: Jorge Messi sits on the terrace of his restaurant, VIP. Word is that about $500,000 was pumped into renovations, and the slick bistro is packed most nights; everyone knows it as the Messis' place. Yet there are no posters or signed jerseys on display, no breast-beating salutes to Leo. This might seem odd, considering that Leo is the era's latest offering, in any sport, of greatness in its prime. But Jorge isn't sure Leo's success was worth all the trouble.

"If you asked me if I'd do the same thing today, I'd say no," he says. "I don't regret anything, but it was too hard to live [through] again."

The problem wasn't soccer; despite Leo's size, playing was never hard for him. Growing up in the scrappy working-class neighborhood known as La Bajada (the Descent), Leo never shied from playing with the pals of his older brothers, Matías andRodrigo, in the dusty streets. "When they kicked him, he'd fall and just get back up; he wasn't scared," says neighbor Rubén Manicabale. "He always played barefoot, and he would pick fights with his brothers." When Leo was five, his dad coached him at the scrubby field by the Abanderado Grandoli housing project; the boy would score at will, often dribbling from goal to goal untouched. Lamps and tchotchkes in the Messi house were constantly being broken by flying balls.

Manicabale leads the way past Leo's elementary school to a nearby clutch of soccer fields. Matías Messi, 28, misses an easy score as his neighbor walks up. Matías's team loses, he gathers his gear and begins walking toward the postgame grill. "He was the same then as he is now," Matías says of Leo. "He'd be happier playing football for free than doing something else for a hundred million euros."

At seven, Leo followed Rodrigo and joined the youth program of Newell's Old Boys. In one game that is still talked about, Leo dribbled upfield as, one by one, seven opponents tried to kick him. All missed. "He was a machine," says Ernesto Vecchio, who coached Leo for three years at Newell's. "Once he was sick, and I had him on the bench. We were losing 1-0, and I said, 'Leo, win me this match,' and he jumped up and scored two. Every year he'd score more than 100 goals in 30 matches." Leo would put on dribbling exhibitions during halftime at senior games. He was so good that spectators wondered if they were watching a circus dwarf.

When Leo was 10, Jorge and his wife, Celia, noticed that he wasn't growing. A battery of tests revealed that he'd be lucky to reach five feet as an adult, and the Messis agreed to a regime of nightly growth-hormone injections in alternating thighs. Starting at 11, Leo would tote a small blue cooler with needles and doses to games, friends' houses, everywhere. He injected himself; he never complained. "It was just another part of my routine," he says. He would do that for five years.

The medicine was expensive -- $1,000 for a 45-day regime -- and after two years Jorge's employer, a steel manufacturer, stopped its coverage. Jorge made no more than $1,700 over 45 days, and with Leo now 13 and attracting attention from other clubs, Jorge asked Newell's to pay for the treatment. After giving the Messis three payments totaling $500, Jorge says, Newell's cooled on the idea. "We didn't want to beg," Jorge says, "so we started looking at other options." Jorge flirted with Buenos Aires power River Plate, but eventually Barcelona stepped in and offered to cover the full cost. That's where the story usually pivots onto positive ground: Eventually Leo not only got the medicine needed to grow to 5'7" but was also surrounded by the players and the coaches he needed to realize his potential. But the move nearly broke the Messi family.

Jorge moved Celia, their three sons and their five-year-old daughter, María Sol, to Spain in September 2000, but within a year Celia took the other kids home to Argentina, leaving Jorge and Leo in Spain. The separation was excruciating. "Leo needs his mother, and I needed to see my daughter," Jorge says. "The first three years Leo saw his mother only every four months." Boarding the plane back to Barcelona after visits to Argentina, Leo would be an emotional wreck. He spent many nights in La Masía alone, crying; the other kids would go home on weekends. "It was very tough for me," Messi says. "There were moments when I was really sad and homesick, but I never thought of leaving. I knew I wanted to stay and keep playing."

In discussing his five years in the Newell's youth program, Messi dwells on the bitter end: The club wouldn't pay for his treatment, he says, and Barcelona did. The result is that Newell's is now known, worldwide, for making one of the biggest mistakes in soccer history. But in a dispute that has only further separated Messi from his roots, both Almirón and Carlos Morales, who coached Leo from age eight to 11, say that Newell's provided the Messis with more than $8,000 -- $450 a month -- over an 18-month period that ended only when Leo left for Spain in 2000. Morales says that the Messis simply stood to gain more from Barcelona: "There was a lot of money involved."

Almirón, Newell's football school director then, corroborates the $8,000 figure and says he always made the payments in cash, to Celia. Sitting in a Rosario hotel lobby in April, he fans out nine receipts signed, he says, by Celia. But five of the fresh, unwrinkled receipts show payments of $200 or less. Only two sets of receipts are dated the same months, April and July 2000, and they total $305 and $240 -- below what Almirón says he gave the Messis, and well below what Jorge says the treatment cost.

The amounts involved, of course, are minuscule, and Almirón and Morales are no longer with Newell's. The club's new president has taken pains to reach out to the Messis, and last year Jorge responded with a $29,000 donation for the Newell's training facility. But bitterness about Leo's departure simmers on both sides -- and it's not only at Newell's that people have mixed feelings about Rosario's most famous son.

Across town at Messi's boyhood field at Abanderado Grandoli, families still fill the small grandstand on Saturdays, and fathers still clutch at the hurricane fence while staring at their boys' games. Yes, Messi is a point of pride here, says Grandoli youth soccer club president David Treves, but Messi hasn't visited since he became a star, and he hasn't contributed balls or uniforms or money to upgrade the field. (Jorge says Leo's foundation plans to help the entire neighborhood, stressing education as well as sports.)

"He never came back here, not since he left for Barcelona," says Vecchio. "I've never spoken to him again." After Brazil beat Argentina in Rosario last September, Vecchio stood outside the stadium for an hour, chatting up Jorge and Celia, waiting for Leo to emerge so he could get a word. When Messi hurried onto the team bus, Vecchio figured his chance had passed. Then Messi sat and saw him through the window. He recognized his old coach, and his eyes lit up, and he grinned and waved, looking small again behind the glass.

***

Pancho Ferraro is tired of hearing it -- from his brothers-in-law, from the journalists and the fans he bumps up against in bars, even from his own sister: What's wrong with Messi? Does he even care about playing for Argentina? "It's painful to get this even from my own family," Ferraro says. "I'm always defending Messi. This controversy says more about the Argentine people than about him: We can't enjoy it when we have good things. We always see the dark side, the glass half empty, and we can't just enjoy the kid who is us. He's our boy. I know how Messi loves to wear the Argentine colors; I know his commitment."

Despite his gratitude to Barcelona, in 2004 Messi turned down an invitation to play for the Spanish national team. Ferraro has seen Messi twice lead Argentine teams to world championships. As coach of Argentina's 2005 U-20 World Cup team, in fact, Ferraro almost saw his own career end before it began; he left Messi on the bench in the first half of the first game and, sin of sins, lost to the U.S. "I died," he says, "and then I came back to life."

Messi brought him back. Messi scored six goals in eight games, was named the tournament's MVP, turned 18 midway through the event but still stood up in the locker room before the semifinal against Brazil and said, "This is Brazil. We cannot make a mistake, or we'll lose. But we're going to win." He scored in the sixth minute to lead the 2-1 victory, then scored twice more to beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final. Only once in the tournament did Messi cause a problem. After Argentina qualified for the second round, Ferraro removed him from a meaningless second half against Germany, and Messi stalked off the field, refusing to look at Ferraro. Afterward, at the hotel, Messi found his coach and apologized. "I didn't mean to do that, but I always want to play," he said. "I don't feel good sitting down."

"I've never seen him do that to another coach," Ferraro says. "With Messi, you don't need to give him the captain's armband -- you need to give him the ball. It's his toy. He's a child. He relates to football like a child."

That is the underreported fact about one of the most scrutinized people in the world: his childlike joy. You could see it in Barcelona when he skidded on his ass and sat wide-eyed, legs splayed, like a kid in a mud puddle, after scoring his fourth goal against Arsenal. Maradona never had that joy; his was a bullying kind of artistry. All of Messi's furious work -- all that scampering, that teetering, that lashing with the left foot -- is just tracing on a map, the trail of a man in search of his bliss. "And when he's happy," says Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, "everything he does works."

***

It's late April, and Messi is happier now. He had a two-hour meeting with Maradona in March, which may well have put coach and star on the same page at last. But mostly he's happy because he's in Barcelona with a few La Liga games left and goals to score and no one doubting him. That will change soon, though, and Messi will go home to Rosario, to La Bajada, to the land where his father is feeling the heat.

"He's Argentinian," Jorge says of his son. "He feels Argentinian. I feel he's been loved [in Europe] but not here. It's very common here to feel that if anyone succeeds overseas, you can't feel he's one of yours. So the press instills the idea that Messi is not Argentinian, that he lives like a Catalan, because he made it without playing here. Leo is really downhearted about it."

If Argentina wins the World Cup, of course, all that will disappear. Messi will have saved the Argentine hero, saved Maradona from himself, and the Diego legend will take its newest and craziest twist. But if Argentina loses? Then all those criticisms and all the cracks in Messi's relationship with the country will only grow; then his dealings with the media will be ever more frayed.

He's young. There will be other World Cups. But Maradona will be gone, probably in a cloud of fury and invective, and Messi will have no choice but to rebuild, Argentine-style: Grab some wire, duct tape, a bit of glue. Apply. Let dry. And hope -- no, insist -- to everyone that the damn thing will end up working just fine.

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