The Argentinian affair: Rafa's remarkable wooing of Mascherano

How Liverpool's manager won the heart and mind of a World Cup star. Now Anfield must await the approval of the Premier League
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The Independent Football

A few weeks ago Javier Mascherano had dec-ided to try to end the madness of his short, surreal career at West Ham United and join Juventus. Even though the Italian club, given their own dramatic travails, could hardly be described as a bastion of sanity, they appeared an attrac-tive haven for the miserable young Argentinian midfielder - and perhaps one more suited to his style of play. The Old Lady had charmed El Jefe (The Chief).

Then Mascherano received a knock on the door of his apartment in London's Docklands. It was Rafael Benitez. The Liverpool manager turned up unannounced and wanted to know why Mascherano had chosen the Stadio Delle Alpi ahead of Anfield. Over the next four hours Benitez talked to Mascherano as no coach had talked to him before, and the 22-year-old was utterly mesmerised. He also changed his mind. He would now try to join Liverpool.

During the conversation Benitez had sat leaning over the coffee table and enthusiastically using the decorative stones placed on it to represent Liverpool players, just as a father might improvise with salt and pepper pots to explain the game to his son. Benitez told Mascherano exactly where he fitted into the Liverpool team - apparently alongside Xabi Alonso, holding in the centre of midfield, with Steven Gerrard on the right.

It is a story that suggested the nightmare would turn into a fairytale for Mascherano. But that would be far too simple an outcome for the extraordinary saga that started last August, on the final day of the summer transfer window, when it was announced that Mascherano and Carlos Tevez, two of the hottest talents in world football, had joined West Ham. And without a transfer fee being paid.

No one could quite believe it. West Ham crowed how they had beaten off other clubs for the signatures, but it soon became apparent that no one else would have accepted the prohibitive terms under which the two players had arrived in England. Those terms have dogged proceedings ever since.

On another deadline day, the end of the January window last Wednesday, Kia Joorabchian, the Argentinians' mentor and the man who appears to control their "economic rights", was pacing his executive box at the Emirates Stadium. On the pitch, Arsenal were playing Tottenham Hotspur for a place in the League Cup final. Off it, Joorabchian was waiting for the mobile call to tell him that the Premier League had ratified the paperwork to allow Mascherano to move. It didn't come.

The documents were signed and delivered but Joorabchian, the 35-year-old Anglo-Iranian entrepreneur who had fronted a bid to buy West Ham and is looking to acquire another Premiership club, was told nothing would be agreed until the player's contract was scrutinised the following day. Such is the mad sequence of events that when Joorabchian asked where Mascherano, who he had hoped to sell for 25m euros (£16.5m) but is moving on an 18-month "loan", should report for training the next day - West Ham or Liver- pool - nobody knew the answer.

His frustration was compounded because the Premier League had written to Fifa for dispensation of their rules so that Mascherano could move to a third club within a season. Fifa had waited until the evening before the transfer window closed to grant this, partly because they did not want to receive a flood of similar requests.

It is a confusing situation. Mascherano's lawyers were always confident the Fifa rule could be challenged, even though the organisation had written to West Ham in December warning them that neither player could be offloaded. Neither was wanted by the new chairman, Eggert Magnusson, who, understandably, thought the deal stank. Just as importantly he also did not want Joorabchian, who was involved in a staggering 19 deals last month, to continue having links with West Ham.

It meant that the Hammers washed their hands of the whole thing. Tevez was playing, so it was harder for him to argue his career was being damaged. Crucially, Mascherano's contract appeared to differ from Tevez's, as did the issue of exactly who owned each player. That is still mired in secrecy, hence the hold-up in Mascherano being allowed to move to Liverpool.

The Premier League are now seeking clarity, are scrutinising all the documentation and have emailed clubs to detail the relevant rule - U18 - which deals with the issue of player ownership. Basically it states that Premiership clubs are prohibited from signing players who are "owned by a third party" who would have the "ability materially to influence its policies or the performance of its teams".

A comment by West Ham's manager, Alan Curbishley, was illuminating. Asked to explain Mascherano's departure, he said: "He hadn't played. Carlos was playing and was more settled, so I think they decided as soon as the window opened that there was a situation that could happen. I decided perhaps we should not stand in his way and to keep it clean we kept out of it."

It is who the "they" are that is the vexed issue, with Joorab-chian, who appears to have a 50 per cent stake; the company he previously worked with, MSI; and various other parties. West Ham held the registrations, with the players signing four-year deals, but there was another strand with owners who had a contractual right with West Ham over who they could be sold to in the future, for how much and when. Exactly who owns the players remains unknown, because the companies are registered in offshore tax havens.

It is a mess that needs clearing up so that it does not happen again. For a start, West Ham did not even appear to know that Mascherano had passed a medical and agreed terms with Liverpool some time ago. Were they aware that Benitez had been to see the player? And, if not, does that constitute "tapping up"? Curbishley has suggested West Ham did know, but added: "When Liverpool lodged their interest as a club we knew it was not all down to us, and we didn't want to stand in his way. That is why it was allowed to happen."

What is perhaps less confusing is why Mascherano, who played every minute of Argen-tina's World Cup campaign, did not succeed at Upton Park. In five months he played just five matches - and lost them all. But West Ham were the wrong team. The high-tempo, energetic style of play did not suit him. A struggling side, a club in turmoil failing to match last season's achievements, was not the right place.

"I arrived there with the hope of playing," he has since said, "so that European people would know me." He has certainly raised his profile. But not for the right reasons. Mascherano will hope Benitez can now alter that.

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