BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -- Thousands of Argentines cheered on the national team as it departed for South Africa on Friday on their quest to win the country's third World Cup.

The send-off marked the latest sign of growing confidence in coach Diego Maradona, who has had a turbulent tenure since taking over the team more than 18 months ago.

Chanting fans crowded a highway leading to the Buenos Aires international airport as a bus carrying the team moved slowly towards their flight.

"We're all with Diego," said Martin Bertaina, a 39-year-old horse trainer who rode his horse 20 kilometers to see the team.

"Maybe a few months ago we weren't, but Argentines are like that. One day we love you, the next we don't. But Maradona is special."

Argentina, World Cup champions in 1978 and 1986, is widely seen as one of the tournament's most talented teams led by striker Lionel Messi, who was voted Europe's player of the year.

Maradona, one of the game's greatest players, had a wobbly start as coach. His side advanced to the World Cup finals after winning its last qualifying match, narrowly avoiding a playoff.

However, two wins in friendlies against Germany and Canada, and strong showings by many of the team's top players with their club teams in Europe, have raised expectations for the team in South Africa.

"We possibly have some of the best players in the world," said 68-year-old clothing store owner Carlos Paradela, who cheered the team while carrying his five-year-old grandson Joel on his shoulders. "Diego is going to lead us to the championship."

Argentina has been drawn in Group B for the World Cup finals along with Nigeria, South Korea and Greece.

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