By KARL RITTER
2014-06-10 06:01 AM
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) -- Argentina left for Brazil on Monday trying to temper the sky-high expectations that have taken hold among some media, fans and even national football officials.
The hundreds of Argentine fans who cheered the team on as it left Buenos Aires in a chartered jet have good reason to be confident. Argentina has a more close-knit team than when it got crushed by Germany in the quarterfinals four years ago, and 10 goals in qualifying helped star forward Lionel Messi shake off his reputation of underachieving for the national team.
But its full potential is hard to assess because it hasn't played a major football power since losing to Uruguay in its final World Cup qualifier in October.
"It's great that people are excited, but we're taking it step by step. We know the World Cup is difficult and anything can happen," Messi said after Argentina beat Slovenia 2-0 in its last warm-up game.
Ahead of the team's arrival, an Argentine federation official had a greeting put up on the gate of the team base in Belo Horizonte saying "Welcome future champions." He acknowledged that some players, including Messi, weren't thrilled by the triumphalism, and the sign was quickly removed.
After the Slovenia match Messi brushed off a TV reporter who asked whether he should bring a flag saying "Argentina campeon" to Brazil.
"You bring what you want, we're taking it easy," Messi said.
Among the other title favorites, Germany has tested its strength in friendlies against England, Chile and Cameroon -- all World Cup teams -- and defending champion Spain took on three-time world champion Italy in March. Meanwhile, Argentina booked dress rehearsals this year against Romania, Trinidad and Tobago and Slovenia, none of which made it to the World Cup.
Argentina didn't concede a goal in those games, easing some concerns about its defense, but they don't say much about how the team will measure up against stronger adversaries.
Argentina was drawn in what looks like one of the least competitive groups, with Nigeria, Iran and World Cup debutant Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's widely assumed that the Albiceleste will breeze through the group, though coach Alejandro Sabella won't be drawn into speculating about potential opponents in the next phase.
"I can't do futurology. We didn't end up in the most difficult group. But we're playing against physically strong teams," Sabella said Saturday. "We'll try to advance from the group phase, and if we do, get there with our players in good condition."