Argentina had to rely upon their leader and Barcelona star to squeeze past the Netherlands and reach their first FIFA World Cup Final™ for 24 years, but it wasn’t the one they expected.
Javier Mascherano continued his fine World Cup with a last-ditch tackle deep into stoppage time to prevent Arjen Robben’s goalbound effort from breaking the deadlock before Argentina prevailed on penalties.
“It was more my job. When Robben took a heavy touch, he lost a second, and I was able to make the challenge. I did what anyone would have done,” Mascherano argued modestly afterwards.
Whilst four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi carries the armband and provides the stardust, Mascherano is the heart and soul of this Argentina side.
If Messi leads by his example, Mascherano is the vocal leader. The latest example of that coming before the penalty shoot-out against the Dutch when “the little chief” could be seen telling goalkeeper Sergio Romero, “tonight you become a hero in Argentina.” Romero went onto make the two crucial saves in the shoot-out.
Mascherano had been captain at the last World Cup under Diego Maradona, who claimed after taking the job his side would be “Mascherano and 10 more.”
And with the current Argentinian side on the verge of emulating his achievements of winning the World Cup in 1986, it was Mascherano not Messi who earned the plaudits of Maradona.
“When I said it was Mascherano and 10 more, they laughed,” he said on Wednesday. “Now they cannot laugh. The example on the pitch is Mascherano. Everyone follows his rhythm so they cannot score against us.”
Score against them is what no one has managed to do in the knockout phase and Argentina had battled their way to the final in a way no one expected.
Messi’s has been a World Cup of moments rather than spell-binding dominance, whilst the other three of La Albiceleste’s fantastic four: Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria have all been affected by a lack of fitness or form.
Instead it is the work of Mascherano patrolling his backline that has contributed to four clean sheets in six games in Brazil. His form is all the more amazing given he hasn’t played his preferred role at club level for four years since signing for Barcelona.
Converted into a central defender by Pep Guardiola, Mascherano has experienced highs and lows at Barcelona with his lack of height and pace often exploited in the last line of defence. Yet, so beloved is he within the club that last month he was rewarded with a new contract until 2018.
“I would never, ever sell him and I wouldn’t swap him for anyone,” Guardiola said before his exit from the club in 2012.
That change of position has also had its benefits for Argentina. Playing at Barcelona has greatly improved Mascherano’s distribution and he has played more passes at a higher success rate than any other player at the World Cup.
The biggest test of his capabilities is yet to come, though, in denying a rampant German side that smashed hosts Brazil 7-1 in the other semi-final.
“We know that on Sunday we will play the game of our lives. We hope to crown this with the trophy, but either way I feel so proud of this squad,” he added. “It is a dream for all of us to return Argentina to this possibility.”
A possibility that exists thanks to Mascherano’s sense of timing.