Mascherano: “I’m Not Rambo”

His shirt sticking out from under his jacket, Alejandro Sabella paces around the technical area. When the first penalty is saved he lets out a roar and raises his little arms as only managers of his age and shape can. Then he uses one arm to hold the other down, like George Costanza with his sling. This is wrong. Superstition, la cábala, says you shouldn’t; it’s mufa, bad luck. For the same reason, he berates his assistants for changing places before the remaining penalties. “Stay where you are, for Christ’s sake!” Meanwhile, Enzo Perez has his fingers crossed and is muttering dark incantations at the Dutch players: ¡quiricocho, quiricocho! Ezequiel Lavezzi is doubled over, his face covered, praying to the football god. El chiquito Romero stands staring at a piece of paper. Is it a crib sheet? We know Sabella works on that kind of thing. But no, it’s a letter from his girlfriend from when they were teenagers. He says afterwards that he always reads it in times of strife.

Many wise words have been written regarding the destructive influence of Brazil’s magical thinking at this World Cup. Pegamequemegusta is a flitty creature, however, who believes firmly in such silliness. The series of last-minute wins over the last few weeks have seen us overdrive on OCD, cleaning, scrubbing, chain-smoking and generally fretting our way to false succour. Luckily, ¡la cabala! this Argentina team has a lot more going for it than a magic chair and twenty-odd gitanes blondes. Nevertheless, in a bid to bring relief to your World-Cup-Final-aching soul, we have for you today another interview with Argentina’s spiritual leader, Javier Mascherano.

As always, he speaks well; as per usual, we stole it from the good people at Olé. This time we’re the parasite deep in the back hair of Pablo Chiappetta. Enjoy or pegame, que me gusta.

Av. Mascherano

  • You must feel like Rambo
  • No, no, I’m not Rambo or San Martín or anyone like that. I don’t let any of that stuff get to me. It’s funny but it’s also embarrassing. The thing is, when people praise you too much they start expecting things of you that you mightn’t be able to deliver. Over the last few days it’s been close to that: people think you’re able to do things you’re just not capable of.
  • Have you been able to sleep?
  • You don’t get that much sleep during a WC anyway. It’s not easy, it’s a long time, you’re anxious, and the games get bigger and bigger. It’s tough, but we try to relax.
  • What about dreaming? Have you dreamed of lifting the cup?
  • No, I haven’t. If we get there, it’ll be up to Leo anyway. I don’t really think like that. I want to win the final and be a world champion, but what I care about is putting in a performance worthy of a huge match like this, doing ourselves justice in a final, playing without nerves or fear.
  • The way you play. That’s why people have reacted as they have.
  • For me, the most important acknowledgement is when people from within football write to me. They appreciate me for who I am as a person. You know, I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. I’m grateful for the affection people show but, I insist, I don’t like praise, it makes me uncomfortable.
  • Bielsa used to say success warps people. Do you agree?
  • Marcelo also said he learned from his failures. Success makes you fall in love with yourself. You think you’re prettier, you’re better than you really are. That’s why it’s so important to stay focused, feel at home in yourself.
  • Are you willing to admit you’re having a great tournament?
  • In a competition like this, when the team works, individual players stand out. The team has grown to be more than just a random selection of names. We were lucky Chiquito saved the penalties, that Ángel’s shot went in in the 120th minute – that’s how stories like this get written. If things had turned out differently, though, I wouldn’t be tearing my hair out right now. Obviously I’m happy with my performances so far – I’m not going to lie – but I’m one of those people that thinks the analysis has to come at the end. And this isn’t over. Tomorrow we have the kind of chance that comes around once in a lifetime.
  • How do you avoid complacency at having reached the final?
  • I was afraid of that after the Belgium match, that after 24 years without a semi-final we’d slack off. But we kept going. If this team strikes a chord with people, it’s already a kind of victory – not the main one, but we’ll have achieved something. The thing Argentines always take most pride in is a team that represents them.
  • A team that clearly isn’t as attacking as it was.
  • The team has changed. From the first match with five at the back, there have been changes. There has been a massive improvement in how we approach matches and how we adapt to the other team. The co-ordination in defence we showed against Holland is proof of that. Hopefully against Germany we’ll be just as lucid.
  • As the manager on the pitch, what do you reckon – should you play Germany the same way you played Holland?
  • It’s a different match. One team gets more players inside, between the lines. That’s where we’re going to have to be tight and get around the pitch very quickly. They defend and attack with the ball. If you give them space, as we saw against Brazil, they tear you to pieces. They’re technically good, they’re strong, powerful and know what they’re about. But I trust this Argentina team. I can see the others are convinced by what we’ve been doing, and that’s important. We have the tools to neutralise Germany’s strong points and create problems for them, too.
  • Then you need Messi more than ever.
  • Leo got this team going in the first few matches and then he adapted to the demands of the whole. In some matches he’s had to slog away much more than we would have liked, but he did it for the good of the team. Hopefully on Sunday we can help him a bit more than he’s been helping us. In the last two matches the team, for various reasons, hasn’t been able to give him what he needs.
  • If you win the World Cup, will it be the end of your international career?
  • We’re not there yet so don’t ask me that. Monday is the time for appraisals. Right now I feel very lucky for having had the opportunity to do things right, something many former team-mates weren’t able to do. I’m happy, I feel good, strong, and I want to continue. The match, and our hopes, are so huge that wasting mental energy thinking about my own affairs would be irresponsible both personally and with regard to my team-mates. 
  • Were you surprised by what Neymar said? [that he was up for Argentina]
  • He showed the kind of kid he is when he said that. I wouldn’t have expected any thing else from him. Since he came to Barcelona he’s done exactly as he should. He never gets out of line. And for him that must be pretty tough at this stage.
  • Has Sabella surprised you or were you sure he was going to do the business at the World Cup?
  • He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t need to shout to get his message across: his knowledge of the game is enough to convince you. He’s honest, professional, respectful and always prepared. It’s not even enough just to judge him in a sporting sense – he made me want to play for la Selección again. I was more out than in, but bit by bit we went about building something. That made me want to be a part of this. The same goes for many of my team-mates.
  • Was Maradona right: ‘Mascherano and ten more’?
  • Here it’s not about Mascherano or Messi. It’s about all of us, those in the squad and those that got left behind and helped us to where we are. We’re proud of having formed such a good group, without egos and everyone pulling in the same direction.
  • And regarding splaying yourself on the ground, with what happened to you the other day, who’s going to dare do that again?
  • What happened with my arse the other day… Look, I won’t say it’s never happened. But if you start asking around, it’s happened to most players in the bottom half of the pitch. I’m not going to burn anyone but we were talking about it amongst ourselves, and, well… Whoever has to do it, though, I tell the lads this is something that only happens to players like us. Really, it’s a kind of blessing.

Messi: The Movie

Of all the stories in football, it’s hard to think of any so familiar as the one about Messi’s beginnings in football. Women with slack, elastic socks and shopping bags at bus stops could tell you, dear fevered one, he moved to Barcelona as a child to get treatment for something or other. Then he bucked into our collective consciousness in the form of muttered astonishment from the sitting room, the word soon coming that some be-moppèd urchin was running Chelsea’s defence ragged, pinging the ball off the upright and getting players sent off.

Ok, so maybe not everyone remembers that much but we were all there for the hat-tricks, the pokers, the underpants advertisements and the general World Domination. Among his many achievements is the exponential and über-zeigeisty growth in the home-video-child-footballer genre – Messi was doing youtube before youtube -, which we’ve also consumed ad delirium.


Nevertheless, a new film has come out called Messi: la película (‘Messi: the movie’), directed by loveable Spanish funnyman Alex de la Iglesia, to tell us the story again. The première was last week in Río de Janeiro. Until the WC finishes, however, it won’t be shown outside Brazil, which we find somewhat strange given this competition engineers such an unmatchable blend of near-suffocating nowness and exhausting expectation. Right now, even Germans must be gurning with uncontainable anticipation to see what Messi will do in the final. Let’s go to the cinema, bask in the biblical warmth of a well-known tale, take the edge off and stoke our self-lacerating love of suspense in equal measure. Vamos! But no, we have to make do with zoom-lens shots of Messi doing bicycle kicks in training, half-obscured by the trees of Cidade do Galo.

From what we’ve read about it, – and what can be gleaned from the trailer – the film does have a few intriguing aspects. Firstly, it was co-scripted by Jorge Valdano and his son, who does this kind of thing for a living. Besides being a rosarino who has spent many years in Spain, albeit in Madrid, not Barcelona, Valdano is a wonderfully pompous football philosopher never short of a good line. Secondly, for better or for worse, instead of talking heads, the documentary sections of the film take place in a restaurant where characters from Messi’s life sit at various tables discussing his past, his personality and exploits. “De la Iglesia creates a level playing field in the telling of Messi’s story,” Marcelo Gantman wrote on canchallena last week. “Football’s learnèd men have the same importance as his best friend from primary school.” It sounds like a wedding with no bridegroom, or perhaps a wake, although the limbo-like darkness of the background suggests the latter. Messi’s Barca teammates Iniesta and Piqué are at one table; his primary school teachers are at another; Marcelo Sottile, Daniel Arcucci and other Argentine journalists are seated together. Sabella, of course, is in with the crowd at another. Only Cruyff and Valdano sit alone. That’s an interesting cast anyhow, and, at worst, makes it watchable on grounds of scarleh morbidity.

In his review, Gantman does not like, however, the stagings of episodes from Leo’s youth. For the film mixes documentary with recreations/imaginings of scenes of ickle Messi in Rosario with his family, or homesick, fragile, quiet Messi in la Masía. Think Crimewatch without a crime. Enimem playing a version of himself is one thing, likewise The Beatles faffing about in A Hard Days Night, but it’s hard to see how this kind of thing can do anyone any good. Messi hasn’t seen it but his family have, and apparently they were happy with it. Units may be moved but few hearts or minds, we imagine. Neither will it work as prophecy, being released after The Event. While as an exercise in nascent nostalgia, however dreamy, it could hardly compete with endless repetitions of the real thing if things do go well on Sunday. 


At least the film’s launch gave us the opportunity to hear what Valdano does best these days, talk. “In his vision coalesce the present and the future, the near and the far,” he told Marcelo Sottile of Olé, regarding the assist for Di María’s goal against Switzerland. This is a virtue he sees only in Messi, who is “another way of being Maradona.” He adds that it’s natural that team-mates can be deferential and reminds us of Menotti’s line about how much possession Maradona should have: “As much as possible.” Nevertheless, Valdano is well aware that there has been a change in Messi’s play: “There was a time when if Messi only scored one goal, it seemed like it was a poor return. Now one goal feels alright.”

Remember, dear world cup finaled one, it was only last November that there was talk of Messi being in crisis. The Right Honorable Sid Lowe wrote that of course Messi was “brilliant, but not quite as brilliant as before.” In the last group game of the Champo League he scored twice against Milan but still felt the need to take two months off to recover from injuries sustained the previous season that had never been allowed to heal properly. When he returned, he continued scoring goals but still looked out of sorts. He was vomiting during games. Nerves, they said. Suddenly Messi was nervous playing against Romania and Slovenia in friendlies. The doctor that gave him the initial hormone treatment dismissed the idea there could have been any long-term after effects. Something seemed to be awry, however.

Or maybe he was saving himself for the World Cup? After all, upon arriving back in Argentina in late May, Messi said he was going to ‘change his SIM card’. It doesn’t appear to have been entirely a mental issue, though. After the first few matches even his grandfather was needling him: “He looks a bit dodgy to me. He doesn’t run around as much as he used to.” This week his mother told a passer-by (who, not realising who she was, was asking the journalist chatting to her for an autograph!) he looked a little ‘static’. His father reportedly told Brazilian newspaper Folha de San Pablo that after the Belgium match, where he tried to chip the keeper in the last five minutes instead of going round him, as he has hundreds of times before, his legs felt like they weighed “a hundred kilos”.

We’re not arguing he’s crocked. In the 120th minute of the semi-final he beat a couple of players on the right wing and sent in a fine cross to the back post that Maxi Rodriguez, of all people, should have done better with. Rather, we wonder if this World Cup isn’t introducing us to a new Messi, the one that will play with Suárez at Barcelona for the next few seasons, one who blends awesome moments of inspiration and incredible bursts of acceleration with long, long periods of near inactivity, like a sperm whale taking a thirty-minute breath before diving five-hundred fathoms deep to do battle with a giant squid.

-Little known Messi fact: as a lad, he, too, loved BBC2’s bowls coverage-

Just as Argentina have altered their style during the competition, his role in the new Barcelona will most likely be different to the false 9 in a 4-3-3 of recent years. Juan Pablo Varsky wrote a few days ago about how, in this Argentina team, for differing reasons he has been deprived of the player who most – and most effectively – gave him the ball (Gago), the decoy arriving late (Di María), and the player he most enjoys linking up with in the box (Aguero). Hence: “He has the ball for more time and against more players, yet he still loses it far less than any other player would in that kind of situation. He’s foregoing personal glory for the benefit of the team. This selflessness is a testament to him as a footballer.”

Having not seen the movie, – this is a preview of a movie preview by way of a WC final preview – pegamequemegusta doesn’t know how this Spanish docudrama treats Messi’s relationship with Argentina: as one of love and hate? A nation piggybacking on his success? The way the French see Ireland in relation to Beckett, just the accidental site of his birth? Either way, on World Cup Final Eve, the country’s relationship with Messi feels as cheerfully expectant as it did back in 2007 at the Copa América, when Messi was more a promise than a saviour. It is often forgotten in the Messi-Argentina story that there was a time before the mutual frustration and disappointment of 2008-2011 with la Selección, a chaotic period characterised by a lack of leadership and poor organisation when even Mascherano, according to an interview in Saturday’s Olé, had doubts over his commitment.

Besides, whatever our paranoia about his well-being, this World Cup has seen a remarkable change in Messi’s openness, his maturity, his humanity. It seems crazy now that such a thing was ever in question, but from everything we’ve seen and heard about the squad, it’s been a real walk-along-a-railway, go-fishing-with-your-buddies type of story, with Messi wailing after the penalties, waving the jersey above his head and singing like any other fan, like all the other members of the team, without the least suggestion of falsehood. This Messi has tattoos, and a son. This is not a fading Messi but a new one.

Many chapters have yet to be written in the Leo Messi story. Sunday will hopefully be a happy one. After all, to invert our earlier analogy, the giant squid was once thought of as being a feckless drifter that fed on sea refuse. Later, the world learned it was a predator.

The Wait

“I’ve been playing this match for twenty-four years now. Twenty-four bloody years.” Before the match, Javier Mascherano gathered his teammates in a huddle. He looked each one in the eyes. He spoke from the heart. The bit between his teeth.

“It’s been twenty-four years and I’m tired of eating shit!”

The captain-without-the-armband continued his stirring speech. He wanted to push the players’ buttons, infuse them with the same thirst for revenge he has after so many disappointments. His final words were almost inaudible as he was losing his voice. It didn’t matter. This was his soul speaking. No more. No less.

“This is for me, for the ex-players for us! We have to smash this barrier!”

So goes Pablo Chiappetta’s report in Sunday’s Olé.

A quarter of a century (nearly) without a semi-final. Take notes, Bollywood. Slightly overwrought, perhaps, melodramatic even, but a story of an honourable man – not a tall man, not the fastest man, not the strongest man, but a man nevertheless – a man, we say, in a tale of personal and national redemption e’en as the vultures squawk outside his karazy country’s bad karma-ridden Central Bank. We see our man’s hair thinning with each wrenching defeat at successive World Cups and Copa Amérikay – always on penalties or in painful goleadas. He died on his feet, they say. Every single time. He dies on his feet so many times he spends hours at hammock fairs and sometimes dreams of peaceful, horizontal, eternal rest. But this time, in picturesque Brazil, he has One Last Chance to Make Things Right. Starring Phil Collins, with a score by Phil Collins and the love interest played by, yes, Phil Collins. Pegamequemegusta feels he’s due a comeback.

What’s necessary, you see, dear reader, is a tight narrative arc, for almost everything so far for Argentina at this World Cup has been, if not madcap, stolidly irregular. The World tuned into Argentina’s first few games expecting a breathtaking show of flair and attacking prowess. The doubts all concerned the defence, which had shaken like Phil Collins’ hands at the least bit of pressure all throughout qualifying. Past form dictated an open, unbalanced team that, whatever the results, was sure to be a lot of fun. Instead, we have a reasonably solid team; we’ve seen la Selección suddenly have much more possession than it’s used to, managing space in a way we haven’t seen since the days of Román and Pekerman.

What’s more, they arrive in the semi-finals with by far the least amount of goals scored of the teams remaining (7, with Brazil and Germany on 10 – ahem -, Holland on 12) and without having conceded any in approximately 250 minutes. Marcos Rojo has become a kind of cult hero even as Biglia gets close-ups during training so we can try to glimpse what makes this man-monster tick. Meanwhile, Demichelis, ¡Demichelis! when not trash-talking Robben, claiming he isn’t up for a scrap (“no tiene potrero”) but he’s going to get one, suddenly seems more impregnable than a she-male in a chastity belt in solitary on Alcatraz. Sailors bob disconsolately at sea, their songbook exhausted, the stars are so awry.

Things are so topsy-turvy some dare to take the absence of creative geniuses like Agüero and Di María almost lightly, especially given the fine performance last Saturday of hipsterball’s Enzo Pérez. Sabella asserted last week that there were no other quality all-round midfielders to choose from, ones who can both defend and attack. “You tell me who,” he challenged the assembled press, “otherwise I prefer to play with a forward in midfield. At least then I can be sure that he won’t just sit there but that he’ll attack, too.” Yes, dear large phonèd one, this is what is known in football terms as The Simon Cox Defence. Yet the general silence on the matter suggests he’s right. Tevez was the only player whose absence provoked any comment. After all the talk of full-backs, perhaps the key factor that determines Argentina’s style of play – not necessarily the chief weakness – is the lack of the kind of player their football produced a lot more of previously.

Even so much focus on breaking the quarter-final hoodoo is revealing in its own right. At the last World Cup, the most popular fans’ ditty was an old one that ended in the lines ¡vamos a ser campeones / como en el ’86! This time around, however, Brasil decíme qué se siente is more akin to an Irish football song insofar as, in Maradona and Caniggia’s exploits in Italia ’90, it evokes a glorious moment rather than any particular triumph. Of course, the goal it celebrates was against the hosts, but the emphasis is more on winning in adversity than on the kind of arrogance and bravado traditionally associated with Argentine football. The willingness to eat shit to win is nothing new but open recognition that we’ve been doing so for twenty-four years certainly is. As Sabella said last week (for a boring man he’s quite quotable): “When I was young people used to say we were the best even though we hadn’t won any World Cups yet. That’s the way we are. It’s a cultural thing…”

There’s some evidence to support a generational shift in expectations, then. Whatever happens, though, it is hard to imagine it as part of a tight narrative where the flaws were apparent from the beginning. Argentina have played and won five games to make the semi-finals of a World Cup and we’re stumped if we can come to any surefire conclusions about what they’ve done, Messi aside. No bickering over traditional styles of play, no saviour-players obscenely left out, no scandal. There’s just a fact, an opportunity to be seized.

“Water in the desert” the Argentina manager said of his number 10 the other day. That would make Masche the camel (come get me, Pixar). Either way, it’s a far more satisfying, an exceedingly more nourishing prospect than to continue munching faeces.