They arrived banging the windows of the team bus on which were written the words: "Last Stop, Glory". As Argentina stood in the tunnel, waiting for kick-off, Diego Maradona came over and kissed each one of his boys on the cheek; a blessing from a godfather.
Some two hours later, after Argen-tina had been taken apart by a team who relied more on tactics than a form of gang culture, most of Maradona's boys were in tears. Maxi Rodriguez was inconsolable. Lionel Messi broke down in the dressing room, his World Cup ended by Germany just as it had been in Berlin four years before. This time, however,
there would be no violent confrontation between the two sets of players. The gulf had been too wide for there to be any argument, and soon Mara-dona was saying he was ready to quit as the national coach. "I may leave tomorrow," he said. "I'll have to think carefully about it, and talk with my family and the players. There are many issues here."
The side Maradona built attacked thrillingly, defended questionably and relied on motivation rather than tactics. In the third minute, when Thomas Müller stooped to head home Bastian Schweinsteiger's cross, it quickly became apparent Maradona's bus had reached the end of the line. "To see Messi crying in the dressing room, telling me he deeply regrets what has happened, is terrible," he said. "Anyone who tells me he did not honour the Argentine colours has to be stupid.
"This is a similar sadness to the one I felt the day I stopped playing. I will be 50 in October and this is the toughest moment in my life; a kick in the face, and I have no more energy left for anything."
Argentina's defence was obviously vulnerable, although few could have guessed how efficiently Joachim Löw's side would expose Nicolas Otamendi and the ageing Gabriel Heinze. It was the way Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich neutered an attack that had seemed irresistible that was the key to Germany's third four-goal victory of this World Cup and one even easier than their humbling of England in Bloemfontein.
Friedrich even got his name on the scoresheet, which is more than Messi has achieved in South Africa, when with Argentina disintegrating as a unit, Schweinsteiger skipped through three tepid tackles and cut the ball back for the big central defender to slide home ahead of Heinze's exhausted challenge. "Argentina have four or five world-class attackers but they don't tend to support their defence," said Löw, whose achievements in South Africa and Euro 2008 have now eclipsed those of his predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann. "I told my young players that they were faster than Argentina and, if they put players like Heinze under pressure, they would struggle because they are not as young as they were."
Only two things would have concerned Löw at half-time: the fact that Müller's harsh booking for handball meant he would miss the semi-final in Durban; and that Germany should have been considerably more than one up.
After the interval, Argentina became as sucked in and as vulnerable to the counterattack as England ever were. Miroslav Klose virtually walked the ball into the net to finish off a move that had begun with Müller passing to Lukas Podolski while flat on his back. And just before the end, Klose, playing his 100th international, scored his fourth goal of this World Cup and his 14th in all.
Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Kaka... all the marquee names of this World Cup have now gone, eclipsed by a centre-forward who decided to train as a carpenter in case football didn't work out.
Bookings: Argentina: Otamendi, Mascherano. Germany: Müller.
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzbekistan)
Man of the match: Schweinsteiger
Match rating: 7/10