Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes

For a player who has not shown a single second’s doubt or hesitation during this World Cup, Javier Mascherano's mindset is somewhat surprising.

Read more:  Can Lionel Messi be the clean-cut version of Diego Maradona?
Germans lap up TV lesson on stopping Argentina

The 30-year-old is talking about the moment that saved Argentina’s entire campaign, and the thoughts running through his head as the events unfolded before him.

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 Argentina backline behind him and seemed set to  finish them. But Mascherano trailed in his wake.

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 so many things.”

In the end though, none of those thoughts mattered. His actions, once 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 to foil a goal.

It may well have been the tackle of the tournament. It may well have come from the player of the tournament. While Lionel Messi will continue to get attention ahead of Sunday’s final, it is  Mascherano who best defines the resilience and durability of this Argentina side in making it 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,” the former West Ham and Liverpool man said, before repeating the words. “We did the job.” Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano both held team-talks in Argentina's World Cup semi-final victory. It was Mascherano who lead the Argentina team-talks in extra-time

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, he 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 chance to rectify that, and Mascherano is determined to seize the moment – and 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, he didn’t quite hit it so early, it gave me the possibility, that extra split second. The truth is 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. And some who know Mascherano say it is precisely his humility that makes him realise 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 talks about 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 team by Hayden Mullins eight years ago.

“At football you have work, you have to keep a 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 now our country, and 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, 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,” he 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 on the grand stage of the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday night.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most