If Argentina have been a mess on the pitch so far at this World Cup, things have been even more chaotic off it and Javier Mascherano was forced to answer questions on Sunday after reports a day earlier that the players, backed by AFA president Claudio Tapia, had effectively staged a coup and frozen out coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Coming only hours after a rumour that Mascherano had fought with teammate Cristian Pavón, it was the latest episode in a long running feud with the Argentinian press.
Following Argentina’s poor start to the tournament and defeat to Croatia, rumours had swirled of problems off the field and this came to a head on Saturday with reports that Lionel Messi and the senior members of the squad would be making decisions ahead of the must-win clash with Nigeria.
“The relationship with Sampaoli is totally normal,” Mascherano fired back in the face of such rumours.
“If we felt uncomfortable with him, we’d say so because if we didn’t we would be hypocrites. We must look to work for the collective benefit, we are a squad of 23 and the first people in charge are us, we’re responsible for the results.”
However, the influence of Messi and Mascherano or the so-called ‘Friends of Messi club’ is something that has continued to follow the national team.
“Who picks the teams? Ask the coaches. There have been several and what did any of them say when they left? That nobody asked for anything.
“That nickname [Amigos de Messi] that has been given to this generation, I do not understand but it is repetitive.”
What Mascherano did confirm is that Sampaoli held a meeting with the players and provided a platform for them to voice their opinions. While this seems to have been enough for sections of the media to distort the truth, the veteran midfielder was firm in his belief that there was nothing odd about this.
“We have to be positive, even the best coaches ask for advice from their players.
“The coach is the one who gives us the tools to play, to be comfortable on the pitch you have to talk, meetings happens at every club, even Barcelona.”
“At the meeting, we talked about football to help us and get us out of this mess. Unfortunately, the noise [from the press] is not helping us at all.”
Although the talk of mutiny was swiftly scotched, Mascherano was joined by midfield partner Lucas Biglia and it was clear that the players were not comfortable with Sampaoli’s changes in formation and is perhaps why Argentina are set to go back to a more familiar 4-3-3 against Nigeria.
“When you change from one system to another and the line-up changes, the function will change. Finding it in a single game isn’t easy, you can have great players but they may not be complementary there.
“It has happened to us several times, usually when we changes the team and the system it becomes more difficult. We have played with a back three, a four a five.
Whatever the problems may be or have been behind the scenes, the squad are at least united in their frustration with the nation’s media.
Having only relatively recently resumed media commitments after an accusation against Ezequiel Lavezzi in November 2016 had led Lionel Messi to lead a boycott, the mistrust remains and for good reason during this World Cup campaign.
“I was accused of hitting Banega after the Copa América final and no one denied it, and nothing happened,” Mascherano explained.
“Me cagaste a trompadas”, le dice Mascherano a Pavón y se ríen. Se nota que la versión de la pelea es verdadera. pic.twitter.com/UBuHg5R5SS
— La Gorda Niembro (@lagordaniembro) June 23, 2018
“Yesterday, a video comes out where someone from football accuses me of these atrocities [referring to Caruso Lombardi and the rumour of a fight with Pavón]. He is a nefarious person from Argentine football. We all know who he is [Lombardi]. These are the myths I speak of.”
“There are those who believe it, of which there are many, there are those who let it go, and there are also you (the journalists) who spread it and say nothing.”
If Argentina are to progress victory over Nigeria on Tuesday is needed and Lionel Messi will be vital. The captain’s form and apparent stress over the responsibility of leading the team has been the source of headlines but Mascherano maintains that the world’s best player is ready.
“He’s fine. He’s a key player, but he’s a human being who has his own frustrations.
“Everyone is like that, but he really wants to reverse the idea people have of him.”
Mascherano looks set to start against Nigeria at the base of the midfield with Messi likely supporting Gonzalo Higuaín and now is the time for the old guard to prove their worth.
“We are World Cup finalists and now we have to prove it. I have faith in this group.”