Marcel Desailly, June 2016

(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)

 

After the semi-finals of France’s last major football tournament, as the country’s whole population belatedly got behind their ethnically diverse 1998 World Cup team, Marcel Desailly felt relief and even elation – but not for the reasons that might be expected.
“I remember when the Dutch got eliminated by Brazil in the semi-final, we were happy,” the 47-year-old explains, his voice rising in excitement at the memory. “Everyone had been watching in their rooms and suddenly we were all in the corridor, discussing it. We were happy. Brazil were one of the three top teams… but the Dutch. They had a tactical set-up that could cause us problems.”
In other words, the French were far more fearful of the Netherlands than they were “the phenomenon” of the Brazilian Ronaldo. The story of how the 21-year-old sensation suffered a seizure but still played in the 1998 final has come to dominate all memories of that greatly resonant World Cup, but he never dominated the minds of that French team in the same way. Once the Dutch were out, Desailly and his team fully believed they could claim a World Cup win many thought would be a transformative moment for the country’s uncomfortable relationship with race.
The little anecdote is far from the only time over the course of a 45-minute interview that Desailly punctures perceptions, or puts a more complex and nuanced perspective on things – and not just football or Euro 2016. The former world and European champion is an easy man to talk to, so often laughing and joking, but he does not settle for easy answers. Take when the conversation naturally moves towards the context of this summer’s tournament, and whether France actually needs victory amid so many recurring racial politics and the awful terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Many footballers would take the easy option and offer a platitude to get out of the discussion. Not Desailly. As a migrant born in Ghana, he feels such issues are important to properly engage with, and a lengthy answer on French racial integration ends with a statement of real impact.
“It will bring a positive environment at that moment,” he says of a potential Euro 2016 victory, “but it will not last.”
Desailly knows this too well. France’s 1998 win didn’t change the country. Eighteen years on, the political issues that clouded that World Cup have grown even more complex. Euro 2016 comes at an even more challenging time.
There is obvious excitement and hope for a joyous international party in a perfect setting for a tournament, but every aspect of it – right down to whether the hosts can actually succeed the 1998-2000 team and end up champions – is under-layered with significant debate. Having led the team from centre-half through that golden era, Desailly is the perfect man to speak on the build-up, and notices many parallels with 1998: a highly talented team expected to end over a decade of acrimony, a difficult climate around it, and a country getting to grips with both. It makes it even odder France is not a ‘football nation’ in the way somewhere like Brazil was for 2014. That is something else that hasn’t changed. Ireland will be going to a big party where only part of the nation are interested.
“In France, we say the football is [open itals] populaire [close]: the working class and middle like it, but the wealthy class? It’s not like in Spain, Germany or Italy, where every single one loves the games. It’s changing a little bit because the wealthy class discover football through business… but it’s not that high, so we need time in France to build up the hope and the craziness around our team.”
That was precisely what happened in 1998 but, in a strange way, the relative apathy from some areas deepens the tension around the team.
“We don’t know how the French players will handle the pressure,” Desailly says of his 2016 successors. “In 1998, the training session before the first game was terrible – terrible. Everyone was under pressure. It locked us up, and was the same for the game. Luckily, we were much better than South Africa.”
France won that 3-0, with a soft group stage then allowing them to harden, and cohere. It became the classic story of how a team grows with a tournament, as Desailly explains.
“It was similar to what is happening now. The team was not fully ready, the tactical set-up strange. Everyone would have loved to have seen the French team from the beginning believing they could win but it took very long, probably from the quarter-final. The key element is getting luck. So we have South Africa first, then [Zinedine] Zidane got the red card [against Saudi Arabia], Thierry Henry takes over and it still works, Laurent Blanc scores the golden goal against Paraguay to make the difference, Italy on penalties, [Lilian] Thuram never scores and he suddenly comes from nowhere to score two against Croatia. The same for the final, Zidane – who did not appear – then bang, brings the extra. Every single player has been able to be at his best.”
It also brought out the best in the country. The team was fully embraced and individual players put forward as symbols of successful integration, with much talk of “a new France”. It didn’t take long to return to old debates.
Eric Cantona detonated one again last week when he suggested Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa may have been left out of the French squad due to political pressure because “their origins are north African”, despite the Real Madrid striker being embroiled in a blackmail scandal. The many strands to the story illustrate the complexity. Desailly defends the decision of manager Didier Deschamps, who he says is still a good friend, insisting “it pains him to leave out Benzema”.
Even aside from the rights or wrongs of that case, does it disappoint Desailly that France 98 did not erode such discussions?
“No,” he says, pausing before offering a longer answer he has evidently pondered a lot. “We know that, for a long-term positive change, it’s just not possible for football to do this. For a moment, yes. When you see someone of African origin or a North African guy taking the French flag, it’s a real moment of communion… but after?”
“France is advanced in terms of social protection – health care, workers’ rights – but the [structure] makes it very hard for people coming from outside to succeed and build up that social respect. You cannot succeed by your motivation alone. There are more barriers.
“In England, we have difficult areas but you still have a little bit of respect throughout the immigrant community. Why? Because many have succeeded and, socially, they’ve brought some kind of respect [for immigrants] into the system. We don’t have this in France and, if we have it, the level is very small.
“It’s not easy for French people to be fully positive towards immigrants because of the lack of integration, by the type of administration we have.
“That’s why immigrants did not have the opportunity to show they have talent and through talent they gain respect so it has not really changed… football cannot resolve that.”
A Euro 2016 victory can help, though?
“It brings a positive attitude, hope, energy, motivation… but it will not last.”
He also feels it’s far too simplistic to place any attempt to win the competition in the context of the November attacks. In any case, putting that expectation on players can be counter-productive. It turns into an enlightening answer on the nature of sports psychology and concentration.
“Through the perception outside, through your friends and family, the crowd, you build up your responsibility. But, as a player, as soon as you put on that responsibility, you put on pressure. When your brain is starting to go into that responsibility, we wash away. We try every time to kill it, to be able to concentrate on ourselves and get into our bubble to perform.
“Sometimes the journalists asks you questions, ‘you must feel this’. It’s different for us. In France, we had a big polemic, asking why the footballers are not singing the Marseillaise. They took the example of the rugby man. The rugby man, they grab [each other], ready to die, there eyes are there… but we are not the same. The rugby man needs to build up energy and aggression to be able to perform. We don’t need that. We have to keep calm, think about what we have to do, we cannot build up that energy.
“I could have been like the rugby guy and at the beginning of the game I would have gone crazy, tackled everyone, so I have to reject that emotional part. I have to kill it to be able to deliver my performance.
“It’s very difficult to explain.”
That is like much with France and these Euros. Desailly has successfully done his best. Now, his successors in the team just need to follow suit. France could do with a similar festival as 1998 – even the effects are not as lasting as will be pronounced.
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Leo Messi’s legacy should not be damaged

A version of this originally appeared on Eurosport, July 2014

Miguel Delaney

Rio

The moment couldn’t have carried more historical weight, and couldn’t have been more pressurised.

It was what the entire World Cup final came down to, and some have already argued Leo Messi’s entire legacy.

The Argentina number-10 stood around 30 yards from goal. His team were 1-0 down to Germany with just one minute left on the clock, and just one kick left to save them. The free-kick was in a similar position to his group-stage goal against Nigeria, but in drastically different circumstances.

Given the stakes of an equaliser at that point, a successful strike would have meant everything; a miss would have left him with absolutely nothing.

The latter was what Argentina ended up with. Rather than gloriously curl the ball into the top corner, Messi sent it high into the air over Manuel Neuer’s goal. His chances of winning the 2014 World Cup followed it into the sky. Instead of confirming his eternal genius with one wondrous final act in the most historic of fixtures, he instantly saw all the old questions return.

The latter, really, is ludicrous.

The very fact a single kick could have produced such extremely contrasting reactions displays the immense expectations onMessi. It also emphasises how great he is, especially after a tournament that would have been superb by anyone else’s standards.

He created more chances than anyone else and came so close to creating history.

As such, it’s worth taking a step back. That kick, and the earlier 47th-minute chance, were not just about winning the World Cup – at least not for Messi.

They were about providing a debate-ending statement. Had he scored, and gone on to win the trophy, it would have left him with a career that was simply incomparable among football’s immortals.

Unlike virtually all of the rest of them from Diego Maradona to Alfredo Di Stefano, Messi only lacks one major trophy. The World Cup was the last one he had to win.

In that regard, he failed with his last act. That can’t be disputed. It will stand against him.

He also failed with the earlier act that was much more damning. Just moments after half-time, Messi was put through by Gonzalo Higuain but could only succeed in putting the ball wide.

The most troubling aspect was that, unlike the Nigeria goal and the pass for Angel Di Maria against Switzerland, this was an inversion of everything that had gone on before in this World Cup.

Messi was now missing by inches when previously he had maximised the most minimalist of circumstances. It adds greater edge that it was on the more exacting of stages, the one where it meant the most.

As a result, this was a repeat of 1990 rather than 1986. Instead of replicating Maradona in Mexico 28 years ago, this was a re-iteration of Italia 90.

There were flashes of genius, one big miss, and then Germany winning it late on.

It’s often forgotten Maradona actually missed a big penalty in the semi-final shoot-out of that tournament, and that he didn’t actually win that much else beyond the 1986 World Cup other than two Serie A titles.

This is not to excuse Messi’s display, but to point out that his career has always been almost the inverse of Maradona’s, with the parallels between this World Cup and 1990 the only real meeting point.

It was really only the parallels in age, location and talent that called for the 1986 comparisons before the World Cup but the key was that it would have been a crowning moment.

That never arrived, despite so many bejewelled displays, from the strike against Iran to the passes for Di Maria.

Consequently, Messi’s career is even more comparable to Johan Cruyff’s than Maradona’s. He has been dominant and utterly devastating at club level, but hasn’t yet made it any further than a defeated final with his country.

That is still incredible company to keep, a fine level to reach. His manager Alejandro Sabella put it best.

“As for his reputation, he is in that pantheon, but he was there before. He has been there for quite some time.”

That shouldn’t be forgotten. Messi may have missed big chances tonight, but he was the major reason his team were in that situation. He has also scored huge goals before, not least in two separate Champions League finals.

Of course, this was by now the trophy he wanted above all.

He made that perfectly clear, particularly with the miserable face put on when going up to collect an ultimately meaningless Golden Ball award.

It said so much that he didn’t care, with the almost comically posed photos adding an element of farce to a defeat some seem to consider a tragedy in the context of his career.

It didn’t have the perfect ending, but no player has the perfect career.

Messi has come far closer than most.

That should not be forgotten, even if it is the misses that will ultimately remain in the memory from this World Cup.

He may not have proven he is the greatest, but there should not be a single doubt that he is a great.

World Cup final 2014 report: Germany 1-0 Argentina

A version of this originally appeared in the Evening Standard

Miguel Delaney

In Rio

It was the perfect finish, and not just in terms of the purity of Mario Goetze’s historic strike.
As the 22-year-old joyously turned the ball past Argentina’s Sergio Romero, there was so much more than 113 minutes of taxing football that went into Germany’s glorious crescendo, a time which made it the second latest World Cup-winning goal ever.
There were also six years of falling in behind Spain, eight years of near misses, 14 years of foundational work and five players from the starting line-up that won the 2009 under-21 European Championships. One of football’s most remarkable revolutions finally saw an evolution into winners.
Jogi Loew has been around for all of that, and certainly felt the anguish of all those recent failures. After so many questions about whether his team had the character to replicate all the German winners of the past, he now knows what the most prestigious victory in football feels like.
He also knows how much has gone into it.
“We’ve been together now for 55 days,” Loew said after this 1-0 win. “We started this project 10 years ago, so this is the result of many years’ work, beginning with Jurgen Klinsmann. We’ve continued that work and our strength has been our constant progress. We’d not made this ultimate step before, but champions do what they will do.
“We believed we’d win it and we worked a lot to achieve it. If anyone deserves it, then this team with Bastien Schweinsteiger, [Phillip] Lahm, [Lukas] Podolski, [Per] Mertesacker, they deserve it.”
Someone like Goetze, meanwhile, defines it. The decisive moment was almost a distillation of everything that German football has been about for the last decade. One of their most vibrant young talents absolutely maximised the ability that has been nurtured by the most sophisticated coaching structure in the world, ultimately providing true end product.
Such foundations and youth approaches also help their international sides develop a club-like cohesion beyond any other team except Spain. That was someway reflected in the more ragged way that Argentina had to work around Leo Messi’s central quality.
Of course, that’s not to say this hard-fought win was all just the inevitable and unstoppable consequence of infrastructural changes. The players and management still had to go and make it happen, which they more than did.
Germany learned from the last few tournaments, and applied the lessons throughout this one. The emotion involved in such a journey could be seen at the end, none more so than from Andre Schurrle, who was part of the Euro 2012 squad that went out of that tournament’s semi-finals in such underwhelming fashion. The Maracana offered quite the contrast. There were finally tears of joy.
“This is the best moment of my life,” Schurrle said. “I had to cry because I was so overcome. I couldn’t stop it. It was always a dream to become a world champion.”
That was also made reality because of certain moments that are more general to any winning team. Loew tried a little mind game when sending Goetze on after 88 minutes, as the manager revealed in his celebratory press conference.
“Okay, show the world you are better than Messi and can decide the World Cup,” he told the young forward.
The latter part definitely came true. The former obviously formed part of a managerial motivation, but ended up at least becoming true on the night.
Messi was not at his best in the Maracana, and could have decided the game long before Goetze did. Shortly after half-time, he was presented with the opportunity to put Argentina 1-0 up, only to put the ball just wide of Manuel Neuer’s post.
It was Gonzalo Higuain who provided the pass, but the forward himself who passed up an even better opportunity earlier on.
Those misses meant this World Cup’s most enduring storyline was not Messi replicating Diego Maradona by finally winning the trophy and thereby potentially surpassing his great predecessor. It became about Germany finally replacing Spain, and bringing a grand project to fruition.
Phillip Lahm has also been there for almost every step, and felt so many previous experiences had an effect.
“We stepped up time and again in the tournament, did not let ourselves get distracted by any disruption, went on our way.
“And at the end you stand there as world champions – an unbelievable feeling. The team has remained quiet and patient.”
The patience is true, although Loew was keen to reassert that.
“We’re looking back over 10 years of preparation and hard work. This team has developed a spirit which is unbelievable.”
The ultimate win was far from unbelievable. Far too much work had gone into it, and not just on the night.
***
A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC

In terms of an ending and a climax, the delivery just couldn’t be faulted.

Mario Goetze’s magnificent finish was entirely fitting of the type of goal that should win a World Cup, from the quality of the control to the athleticism of the turn through to the elegance of the strike.

It was, without putting too fine a point on it, absolutely world-class.

It was also the perfect distillation of everything that ultimately won this World Cup for Germany: one of their most vibrant young players absolutely maximising the talent that the most sophisticated coaching structures had given him, to eventually provide true end product.

Again, you can’t fault the technical delivery of that ending.

As a consequence of all that, however, it wasn’t exactly the most unpredictable ending. There was a sense of inevitability aboutGermany’s deep infrastructural changes ultimately ensuring the team landed on the right result.

That affords a grand scale to this great victory, but doesn’t necessarily mean it was in-keeping with the repeatedly epic nature of this competition’s narratives.

This World Cup had arguably more stunning storylines than any other in history, but this was a break from that, at least in the sense of how expected that finish was.

In that regard, the winning goal did fit the final, because this was also more reminiscent of recent tournaments.

For all the unique grandeur of the Maracana as a special venue, it was not quite a special World Cup final.

It was rather mid-ranking in the history of these games.

Although nowhere near the negativity of 1990 or 2010, it didn’t come close to the coruscating crescendo of 1966 or 1986. The initial pace and openness gave way to tension and a gradual decline dynamism.

What made it stand out was the atmosphere and the setting, as well as the winning goal. Goetze was probably the only player who truly seized the final but it said much that he was a substitute, benefitting from fresher legs.

As he went on, manager Jogi Loew had a specific message for him.

“’Okay, show the world you are better than [Leo] Messi and can decide the world Cup.”

He certainly did the latter. And while the first part of Loew’s statement was clearly a stretch in order to provide motivation, it was certainly true that Goetze ended up more more decisive on the night.

Messi, after all, had the opportunity to put Argentina ahead long before game. That 47th minute represented another inversion of the tournament’s general trends. After a campaign in which the number-10 had maximised the smallest margins, he missed by inches when presented with acres of space for someone of his talent. It should really have been the moment.

Instead, having been put through by Gonzalo Higuain, Messi attempted to swerve the ball beyond Manuel Neuer’s reach but only succeeded in swerving it beyond the post.

It should not affect the legacy of one of the greats, but it is impossible to overlook the fact it affected this final and this tournament.

Rather than serve as the campaign in which Messi put forward a decisive argument in all the debate about the greatest player of all time, we saw another story.

Germany brought to fruition one of the greatest football projects of all time.

That also harked back to the trends of the last few tournaments.

With Spain finally deposed, Germany at last did what they long suggested. They replaced the Spanish at the pinnacle, finally stepping into a breach.

There was no more grand obstacle. They now represent the benchmark.

Of course, most of their players would rightfully balk at the idea that this was some kind of fait accompli. They worked hard for this, and that showed in every trying moment of this final.

“From the beginning we knew we would not have only 11 players on the pitch,” Loew said of what was such a taxing game. “We would need 14, so everyone had to be in top shape during the tournament. Everyone had to be ready. People can’t always play for 90 or 120 minutes at their maximum level. You saw that today. Argentina were becoming more and more tired, so we had players like [Thomas] Mueller and [Andre] Schurrle who could go deeper.”

The emotion certainly went deep, as Schurrle himself indicated.

“This is the best moment of my life. I had to cry because I was so overcome. I couldn’t stop it. It was always a dream to become a world champion.”

They have made it reality, and there is no denying they are a great champion.

The trajectory of this team makes that all too clear. A young side have learned along the way to crown a generation.

“We’ve been together now for 55 days,” Loew said. “We started this project 10 years ago, so this is the result of many years’ work: beginning with Jurgen Klinsmann. We’ve continued that work and our strength has been our constant progress. We’d not made this ultimate step before, but champions do what they will do. We believed we’d win it, and we worked a lot to achieve it. If anyone deserves it, then this team with Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Podolski, Mertesacker… they deserve it. This team deserves it. We showed the best performances for seven matches of all the team in this tournament, but we’re looking back over 10 years of preparation and hard work. This team has developed a spirit which is unbelievable.”

That made the ending, however, all too believable.

There was no unpredictability, only inevitability.

Javier Mascherano interview, July 2014

A version of this originally appeared in the Independent

Miguel Delaney
In Sao Paulo
For a player who has not displayed a single second’s doubt or hesitation throughout this World Cup, Javier Mascherano’s inner mindset is somewhat surprising.
The 30-year-old is discussing the moment that essentially saved Argentina’s entire campaign, and the thoughts running through his head as it happened.
In the 90th minute of Wednesday night’s semi-final against the Netherlands, Arjen Robben executed a gloriously quick exchange with Wesley Sneijder to finally put one of this tournament’s finest attackers through on goal. Robben suddenly left the Argentine backline behind him, and seemed set to finish them. Only Mascherano trailed.
Given Robben’s pace and pedigree, it all seemed so certain. Mascherano was not thinking any differently.
“It was terrible,” he says. “I thought I’d slip, I thought I wouldn’t make it, I thought he’d get ahead of me. I thought of so many things…”
In the end, none of those thoughts mattered. His actions, yet again, were all that counted.
“But I did get there,” Mascherano says, with a quiet satisfaction, “and it wasn’t a goal.”
The defensive midfielder somehow capitalised on a split-second’s awkward slip by Robben to throw his body forward and get the crucial touch.
It may well have been the tackle of the tournament. It may well have come from the player of the tournament. While Leo Messi will rightfully continue to command attention ahead of Sunday’s final, it is Mascherano who perhaps best defines the durability and resilience of this Argentina side in getting there. They have still not fully convinced in this World Cup, but have compensated by really knowing how to dig in and fight. Seen as Alejandro Sabella’s “on-pitch manager”, Mascherano sets that tone. He is prepared to go the distance, to feel the pain. Wednesday night was an almost literal example.
Mascherano’s early head injury may have received most of the attention, but he was preoccupied with pain in another part of his body.
“I don’t want to be rude,” he says with a smirk about the stretched challenge that stopped Robben, “but I opened my anus.”
It is quite an image. Mercifully, there are many more images from the night that overshadow it.
Before the penalty shoot-out, there was the sight of Mascherano grabbing goalkeeper Sergio Romero and telling him “tonight, you make yourself a hero”.
After it, as every other Argentina player sprinted forward in utter jubilation, the midfielder sank to his knees.
“We did the job,” Mascherano said, before repeating it. “We did the job.”
It is little wonder Sabella described the player as “a symbol, an emblem” for the team. “He’s a huge influence on our squad,” the Argentina manager said of Mascherano. “Reaching the semi-finals took a huge weight from his shoulders.”
That sense of redemption and delivery was another sentiment frequently expressed by Mascherano after Wednesday night’s shoot-out win. Having made his debut in 2003, the 30-year-old has endured Argentina’s recent history of underachievement more than most. His 11 years with the team have coincided with the longest the country has ever gone without winning a trophy. It is now 21 years.
On Sunday against Germany, they have the opportunity to rectify that, and Mascherano is determined to seize it – but also appreciate it.
“I have had 11 years where we have seen a lot of things but haven’t seen the light,” he says. “Tonight, we started to see it.”
It’s quite a poetic statement from a player most notorious for applying the game’s darker arts. Yet, despite his abrasive reputation on the pitch, there is an unmistakable humility to Mascherano off it. It comes across when he describes the Robben challenge more.
“He played a great exchange with Sneijder but, because of that extra touch, that he didn’t quite hit it so early, it gave me the possibility, that extra split second. The truth is that there’s not much virtue for me. I just threw myself into it. If I was a moment off, it was a penalty. There’s no virtue. Anyone could have done that. I was lucky to get there. The team was lucky Robben took one more touch. To get to a final, you always need a bit of luck.”
You also need his defensive aptitude, his resilience. Some who know Mascherano say it is precisely his humility that make him all the more willing to indulge in the darker arts, that he realises a chance like this should not be wasted for want of desire.
The game is evidently life to him, but that means it also requires a real work ethic. That’s reflected when he references his experience after his first World Cup, in 2006. As Mascherano prepares for a World Cup final as one of the tournament’s finest players, it is remarkable to think he was once kept out of the West Ham United team by Hayden Mullins eight years ago.
“At football you have work, you have to keep the mentality,” Mascherano says. “The best thing I did when I couldn’t play at West Ham was I kept my mentality. I went to train every day to be a better player. I didn’t have the chance to play all the games there I wanted to play but obviously football always gives you a chance. When I went to Liverpool I had a chance to show my quality.”
He is also proud Argentina have now shown their true spirit.
“We did the things we had to do. We have the tranquility of having given everything, of having performed like we had to. That forms part of this group. It’s been so many years but, well… now, our country, our flag are in the eyes of the world, returning to a World Cup final, the most important match of our careers.”
“It’s a delight, a delight that lifts your soul. It’s something you can’t explain, it’s something I never imagined, but there we are.”
Ahead of it, Mascherano is asked about a previous moment from this tournament, and another defining image. Before the quarter-final against Belgium, he set the tone with his team-talk.
“I’m tired of eating shit,” Mascherano roared. “I want joy for those who follow us and everything. We’re going out to play the game of our lives.”
What about now? Mascherano smiles.
“In life, there’s a bit of everything. You always have to” – this time the hesitation in his thoughts are all too evident – “eat a little bit of dirt.”
He’s also ready to play the game of his life.

Javier Mascherano interview, July 2014

A version of this originally appeared in the Independent

Miguel Delaney
In Sao Paulo
For a player who has not displayed a single second’s doubt or hesitation throughout this World Cup, Javier Mascherano’s inner mindset is somewhat surprising.
The 30-year-old is discussing the moment that essentially saved Argentina’s entire campaign, and the thoughts running through his head as it happened.
In the 90th minute of Wednesday night’s semi-final against the Netherlands, Arjen Robben executed a gloriously quick exchange with Wesley Sneijder to finally put one of this tournament’s finest attackers through on goal. Robben suddenly left the Argentine backline behind him, and seemed set to finish them. Only Mascherano trailed.
Given Robben’s pace and pedigree, it all seemed so certain. Mascherano was not thinking any differently.
“It was terrible,” he says. “I thought I’d slip, I thought I wouldn’t make it, I thought he’d get ahead of me. I thought of so many things…”
In the end, none of those thoughts mattered. His actions, yet again, were all that counted.
“But I did get there,” Mascherano says, with a quiet satisfaction, “and it wasn’t a goal.”
The defensive midfielder somehow capitalised on a split-second’s awkward slip by Robben to throw his body forward and get the crucial touch.
It may well have been the tackle of the tournament. It may well have come from the player of the tournament. While Leo Messi will rightfully continue to command attention ahead of Sunday’s final, it is Mascherano who perhaps best defines the durability and resilience of this Argentina side in getting there. They have still not fully convinced in this World Cup, but have compensated by really knowing how to dig in and fight. Seen as Alejandro Sabella’s “on-pitch manager”, Mascherano sets that tone. He is prepared to go the distance, to feel the pain. Wednesday night was an almost literal example.
Mascherano’s early head injury may have received most of the attention, but he was preoccupied with pain in another part of his body.
“I don’t want to be rude,” he says with a smirk about the stretched challenge that stopped Robben, “but I opened my anus.”
It is quite an image. Mercifully, there are many more images from the night that overshadow it.
Before the penalty shoot-out, there was the sight of Mascherano grabbing goalkeeper Sergio Romero and telling him “tonight, you make yourself a hero”.
After it, as every other Argentina player sprinted forward in utter jubilation, the midfielder sank to his knees.
“We did the job,” Mascherano said, before repeating it. “We did the job.”
It is little wonder Sabella described the player as “a symbol, an emblem” for the team. “He’s a huge influence on our squad,” the Argentina manager said of Mascherano. “Reaching the semi-finals took a huge weight from his shoulders.”
That sense of redemption and delivery was another sentiment frequently expressed by Mascherano after Wednesday night’s shoot-out win. Having made his debut in 2003, the 30-year-old has endured Argentina’s recent history of underachievement more than most. His 11 years with the team have coincided with the longest the country has ever gone without winning a trophy. It is now 21 years.
On Sunday against Germany, they have the opportunity to rectify that, and Mascherano is determined to seize it – but also appreciate it.
“I have had 11 years where we have seen a lot of things but haven’t seen the light,” he says. “Tonight, we started to see it.”
It’s quite a poetic statement from a player most notorious for applying the game’s darker arts. Yet, despite his abrasive reputation on the pitch, there is an unmistakable humility to Mascherano off it. It comes across when he describes the Robben challenge more.
“He played a great exchange with Sneijder but, because of that extra touch, that he didn’t quite hit it so early, it gave me the possibility, that extra split second. The truth is that there’s not much virtue for me. I just threw myself into it. If I was a moment off, it was a penalty. There’s no virtue. Anyone could have done that. I was lucky to get there. The team was lucky Robben took one more touch. To get to a final, you always need a bit of luck.”
You also need his defensive aptitude, his resilience. Some who know Mascherano say it is precisely his humility that make him all the more willing to indulge in the darker arts, that he realises a chance like this should not be wasted for want of desire.
The game is evidently life to him, but that means it also requires a real work ethic. That’s reflected when he references his experience after his first World Cup, in 2006. As Mascherano prepares for a World Cup final as one of the tournament’s finest players, it is remarkable to think he was once kept out of the West Ham United team by Hayden Mullins eight years ago.
“At football you have work, you have to keep the mentality,” Mascherano says. “The best thing I did when I couldn’t play at West Ham was I kept my mentality. I went to train every day to be a better player. I didn’t have the chance to play all the games there I wanted to play but obviously football always gives you a chance. When I went to Liverpool I had a chance to show my quality.”
He is also proud Argentina have now shown their true spirit.
“We did the things we had to do. We have the tranquility of having given everything, of having performed like we had to. That forms part of this group. It’s been so many years but, well… now, our country, our flag are in the eyes of the world, returning to a World Cup final, the most important match of our careers.”
“It’s a delight, a delight that lifts your soul. It’s something you can’t explain, it’s something I never imagined, but there we are.”
Ahead of it, Mascherano is asked about a previous moment from this tournament, and another defining image. Before the quarter-final against Belgium, he set the tone with his team-talk.
“I’m tired of eating shit,” Mascherano roared. “I want joy for those who follow us and everything. We’re going out to play the game of our lives.”
What about now? Mascherano smiles.
“In life, there’s a bit of everything. You always have to” – this time the hesitation in his thoughts are all too evident – “eat a little bit of dirt.”
He’s also ready to play the game of his life.