Back in 2002 the Argentine national team lived, perhaps, its worst frustration at being eliminated in the first round of the World Cup finals in Korea – Japan.
At that tournament, in which the Argentines were one of the top candidates for the title, a group of young players travelled to Asian lands accompanying the team led by Marcelo Bielsa to act as sparring partners in training.
Hours after finishing the match against Sweden, and with the elimination already consummated, the defensive midfielder Matias Almeyda walked up to one of those youngsters and said to him “You’re going to play the next World Cup”. That boy was Javier Mascherano.
Silent hero, a born leader, the mood engine of the team. These are just a few adjectives that the press has been used to qualify Javier throughout his career.
Surely Marcelo Bielsa saw what Almeyda did at the time, because in June 2003, and before Mascherano had even played a single game as a professional for his club River Plate, the “Jefecito” debuted internationally for Argentina in a friendly against his Uruguayan counterparts.
From that moment, Javier built a career worthy of a legend. From his first steps in River Plate up to these days in Barcelona, where he is a fundamental part of one of the best teams in history, “Masche” turned into a leader and a reference for his teammates.
One of its early discoverers, the Argentine coach Jorge Solari, said that,when he saw Javier in action during a match played in the small town of San Lorenzo (the hometown of a Mascherano) he was surprised by the commanding voice of that young boy.
The leadership shown by Mascherano is not based on intimidation and fear, as it was with Vinnie Jones and the “Crazy Gang” of Wimbledon. The Argentine midfielder is the example of everything good that should be a professional football player.
Javier gives everything in every workout, play every game like a final, is correct to the press without being condescending and, most importantly, knows when he should be a leading player and when it should remain in the background.
A clear example of that last point was the decision taken by Alejandro Sabella who, understanding the need to consolidate Messi as a benchmark of the Argentine national team, awarded Lionel Messi the captaincy of the team, relegating Mascherano to vice captain. Javier, far from seeing this as something harmful, supported the decision of the manager.
Still, during the last World Cup finals in Brazil, when all the lights pointed to Messi, Mascherano finished as the centerpiece of a team that, without being able to exploit its offensive power, consolidated its game based on the strength of his defence.
The Argentine public still remembers with emotion the monumental theft by “Masche” against Arjen Robben in the last moments of the semi-final match against the Netherlands.
Equally important was also the talk he had with the Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero, seconds before the penalty shootout with the Dutch. Looking into the eyes of his teammate “Masche” told him “A country is yours behind. Today, you become a hero”.
Perhaps this last example seems a fairy tale to the reader, but the writer believes that the words of Mascherano were the fuel that Romero needed. The ability to inspire is not a common attribute in people, and Mascherano has it.
At that time, where the faith of an entire country was in the hands of “Chiquito” Romero, who was identified by the press and the fans as the weakest point of the team before the World Cup, the goalkeeper chose to believe in the words of the captain without bracelet. Unfortunately for Argentina, in the final of July 13th, fate chose to dress as Mario Götze.
Shortly after the final of the World Cup, “Masche” told the press that he was considering his future with the national team due to the frustration from losing that game against Germany, and the impact was so bad that he believed that he could no longer have the same level of commitment to the team.
Luckily for Argentina, the “Jefecito” rethought his idea and today remains in the national team. Those who love the good guys of football are glad that Mascherano remains on the field and hope that in the end, the last great Argentine hero gets his reward.