Lionel Messi is the quiet, unassuming commander-in-chief leading from example each time he walks onto the pitch but behind him rallying the troops is Argentina’s passionate, vocal deputy, El Jefecito, Javier Mascherano.
As Jorge Sampaoli gets his squad ready for another tilt at the World Cup, Mascherano prepares for his Argentina swansong. Four years ago in Brazil, the 33-year-old was the emblem of Sabella’s beaten finalists, and while his importance in the starting eleven might have diminished since then, Mascherano remains a vital figure within the group.
“I’m a soldier,” Mascherano told reporters gathered at Argentina’s training complex in Ezeiza, as if that statement was already in any doubt among Argentinians.
“I am available for whatever the coach needs from me both on and off the pitch. That is my role today. This is my last battle and I am going to die.”
Such a rousing statement is what the people have come to expect from the player who famously lifted Sergio Romero before the penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands in 2014 with his inspirational ‘Today, you’ll make yourself a hero’ speech.
However, Mascherano, who now plays his club football in China, is not going to Russia just to act as some sort of cheerleader.
“I have competed all my life and it is my duty to make the choice for the coach as difficult as possible. Everything I have, I have earned through hard work.”
In Brazil, Mascherano’s role as Argentina’s number five was beyond doubt despite Barcelona converting him to more of a central defender at club level and while the veteran no longer has such guarantees over starting, Sampaoli sees the value of Mascherano being able to play in either position.
“I know I’m not the same as I was four years ago but that does not mean I can not continue to contribute things,” Mascherano confessed.
“For me it is the last chance.”
Mascherano will travel to Russia along with the likes of Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Angel Dí María and Lucas Biglia as veterans of three final defeats. Those narrow failures have left a scar on this group that they are desperate to put right but the Hebei China Fortune star isn’t looking too far ahead.
“Thinking about the final would be a mistake. The first match (against Iceland) will be crucial to build confidence.”
Confidence in Argentina is low, after what was a dreadful qualifying campaign that required a Messi hat-trick in Ecuador to seal a late spot. Alejandro Sabella took a squad to Brazil that had breezed through qualification and although La Albiceleste hadn’t been to the semi-finals since 1990, there was a hopeful expectation.
That has given way for optimistic longing this time round but Mascherano hasn’t felt that the Argentinian people ever felt let down by the three consecutive final defeats.
“Honestly, I haven’t met a single person in the street who reminds me that we lost three finals. Not even one. I take airplanes, I come to Buenos Aires, I go to a hotel, I go to a restaurant, to my town and everyone appreciates what we did.
“Besides, I want to tell you that we are going to try again. We are going to give it everything but promising results would be worthless as they don’t just depend on desire.”
Lionel Messi already spoke about this desire shared by many of the squad that have experienced the disappointment of three final defeats and while many have been granted another opportunity, Argentina were rocked by the injury to Sergio Romero on Tuesday that rules the experienced goalkeeper out.
“Obviously it is a very sensitive blow for us, not only in football terms but on a personal level,” Mascherano said less than 24 hours after it had been confirmed Nahuel Guzmán would replace Romero in the squad.
“Chiquito [Romero] is the goalkeeper who has practically been a starter for the national team for ten years. Today we have to suffer the loss but these are things that can happen in football.
“Chiquito hasn’t expressed all his sadness, but it is clear just how disappointed he is. We feel that he is with us even if he is not in Russia.”
Injury to Romero is certainly not the only concern that Argentina have ahead of the World Cup with Sergio Agüero just returning from injury after knee surgery and Lucas Biglia and Gabriel Mercado reporting for duty with knocks.
“We have suffered unforeseen events in recent weeks that have disrupted the coach’s plans a little, but that does not mean that there is not great optimism.
“We have faith in the 23 available and the best eleven selected for the opening game.”
Argentina may not be able to go one better than in Brazil but one thing is certain, Javier Mascherano will do everything that he possibly can. El Jefecito’s retirement will be the end of an era and the midfielder is now already discussing the possibility of a return to River Plate to see out his career.