Javier Mascherano proving to be Argentina’s real leader
Despite Lionel Messi wearing the armband midfielder displays his own brand of leadership
Javier Mascherano celebrates after Belgium defeatedg Belgium 1-0 in the World Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
When Argentina’s players gathered on the sideline before extra time against Switzerland last week, it was noticeable that captain Lionel Messi did not make any attempt to rally his team-mates.
All the shouting was done by the shaven-headed number 14, Javier Mascherano.
Mascherano wore Argentina’s armband from 2008 to 2011 but was sent off in his last game as captain, as host nation Argentina were knocked out of the 2011 Copa America by Uruguay.
Messi took the armband from his captain that day on the field and he has held on to it ever since.
Sublime talent It’s difficult to know exactly why manager Alejandro Sabella felt Messi should be the captain. He is the best player in the world and you could say that he leads by example, though often by doing things his team-mates are unable to do.
The central defender Martin DeMichelis revealed that his young son had been watching videos of Messi when all at once he started to cry.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked his father. The boy replied that he was upset because he knew he could not do what he saw Messi doing. Don’t worry about that, DeMichelis told him; neither can I.
Maybe Messi was silently demanding that armband. Perhaps Sabella thought it would make him feel better about himself; maybe the coach just thought it was right that the best player in the world should be the captain of the team.
Part of his thinking would have been that he knew he could rely on Mascherano to provide his own brand of leadership, no matter who he appointed as official captain.
Mascherano has been playing his club football as a centre back since joining Barcelona, but for Argentina he remains the man who sets the tempo from the base of midfield.
The midfield role suits him much better. At 5ft 7in he is too short to be a convincing centre half. And in midfield there is more scope for him to display his reading of the game and his special gift of timing in the tackle.
Mascherano is still probably the best slide tackler in football. His former Barcelona team-mate Cesc Fabregas reckoned him one of the only players whose tackling was good enough to be a match-winning quality, the way other players could win games with dribbling or passing skills.
The statistics confirm that Mascherano has had a quiet monster of a tournament. He has been on the ball 507 times, which is the most of any player in this World Cup before last night’s other semi-final, a few touches ahead of Philipp Lahm. He has covered more ground than any other Argentina player, and his 37 ball recoveries is the second-highest total achieved by anyone at the World Cup, after Belgium’s Daniel van Buyten.
His 14 tackles are the most of any midfielder still in the World Cup, with the exception of Brazil’s Oscar, who has made an incredible 30 tackles – 50 per cent more than the total of the next-highest player on the list – without anyone except the statisticians noticing.
His disciplinary record has been questioned in the past, notably after that sending off against Uruguay, but Mascherano has not received any yellow cards in Brazil. In fact his ability to shield the ball from frustrated opponents in midfield has made him one of the most-fouled players in the tournament.
Now 31, Mascherano knows that this is probably his last chance to win the World Cup and that if he is able to scale the heights on this occasion it might be the greatest achievement in Argentine football history.
Last chance Both of his World Cups have ended in eliminations at the hands of Germany. In 2006, Argentina’s manager Jose Pekerman made a series of bizarre substitutions in Berlin
– withdrawing Joan Roman Riquelme and leaving Lionel Messi on the bench – that gave heart to a German team who had been on the ropes. And they beat Argentina on penalties after coming from 1-0 down.
In 2010, Germany destroyed an Argentine side which had been set up to fail by Diego Maradona, whose plan essentially involved asking Mascherano to play as a one-man midfield behind five forwards. Mascherano was swamped by the teamwork of the German attackers and the 4-0 defeat was one of the country’s worst World Cup moments.
This time he intends to leave a better account of himself and of Argentine football. As Mascherano was reported by the newspaper Olé to have told team-mates before they took the field against Belgium: “I am tired of eating shit!”
Sabella knows Mascherano doesn’t need to wear an armband to give his side shouty leadership of the old school. That line before the Belgium match is not the kind of line you can imagine Messi coming out with and sounding convincing, but with the two of them both in the side, Argentina have a lot of angles covered.