By Alexandra Ulmer
BUENOS AIRES, June 26 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi's brilliant World Cup form is banishing memories of the goal drought the mercurial striker suffered in South Africa four years ago and electrifying one-time wary Argentine hearts.
Over the years, the reticent striker has struggled to arouse passions in the homeland he departed at 13 to join the Barcelona academy in Spain, leaving larger-than-life Diego Maradona as the undisputed Argentine soccer idol.
Messi's sparkling career at Barcelona had seemed faraway for many compatriots, given he was not a familiar figure who rose up through local teams like Maradona and most of the other South American greats did before heading to Europe.
A quiet World Cup debut in 2006 and chequered tournament in 2010, where he failed to score and Argentina were thrashed 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals, compounded that schism between his global glory and sometimes lukewarm local sentiment.
But with Messi banging the goals in during this World Cup qualifiers, and scoring four in Argentina's three wins so far at the tournament in Brazil, the four-times World Player of the Year appears to be winning over the few remaining holdouts.
"He's saved us!," gushed grinning Paula Arganaras, a 24-year-old shopworker who has not missed an Argentine World Cup game so far. "He was born with something special," she said hours after Messi netted two in the 3-2 win over Nigeria.
Evidence of a now ballooning love affair is everywhere.
The 27-year-old's birthday on Tuesday was an all-day celebration for many TV channels. His face smiles down from billboards throughout the capital Buenos Aires.
Kids proudly prance around in their number 10 jerseys and fans carry lifesize cardboard cutouts of him.
The adulation, though, inevitably hits a historic roadblock.
"Of course, Maradona first," Arganaras said. "For now, at the moment, it's Messi, but Maradona is always in our hearts."
And therein lies the essence of Messi's conundrum at home.
While Argentines marvel over the striker's seemingly impossible goals and deft dribbling, he cannot whip up quite the same fervour as the man he is constantly compared with.
To start with, he would have to win a World Cup as Maradona did, almost single-handedly in an average team, in 1986.
And the Maradona story, born in a grimy slum and later struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol, is a tale of human flamboyance and flaws that everyone knows and can quickly identify with - love him or hate him.
By contrast, clean-cut and quiet Messi, a devoted partner and father, keeps his cards close to his chest.
Some say the country should just get used to Messi's tamer style off the pitch.
"He's not very demonstrative but in his way he's proving he does have passion," Fernando Hernandez, a 42-year-old lawyer, said as he watched a game on a giant screen set up in a central Buenos Aires plaza.
"In 2010... Messi seemed almost indifferent. His attitude has changed," he added, as blue-and-white streamers fluttered around him.
Indeed, Messi's primeval scream of joy when he scored his first goal at this tournament and second ever in a World Cup, versus Bosnia, seemed it might be heard in Buenos Aires.
Whether a fired-up Messi can actually bring home a medal - on arch-rival Brazil soil to boot - is the tantalising question on everyone's lips. Argentina have not lifted the trophy again since Maradona brought it home almost three decades ago.
Clearly sensitive to his image at home, Messi has always gone out of his way to stress he pours his soul into playing for Argentina and is evidently hungry for the ultimate win.
But he is yet to win all his compatriots over.
"He's lacking... " 48-year-old kiosk worker Claudia Salinas said, hesitating before adding: "Argentinism."
Salinas confessed she flat out "doesn't like" Messi.
"As an Argentine, I think the shirt weighs very heavily on him," she said. "Maradona is Argentine. He wore the shirt with the guts that Messi lacks. That can change, but let's see if he wants to change." (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne/John O'Brien)