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.
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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. 

Mascherano: “If Leo was picking the team…”

What to do with the vulgar? How are they to be presented to the reader — you, dear handsome one! — in such a form as to be in the least bit interesting? They cannot be left out altogether, for vulgar people meet one at every turn of life, and to leave them out would be to destroy the whole reality and probability of the story. There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else”. Hence, today pegamequemegusta has decided to bring you a translation. All week we tussled with the opinions of the vulgar and tried to strip the fat from our own vulgar thoughts, yet then there came a thin blade of coherence in the form of Mascherano’s interview in yesterday’s Olé.

It’s not the first time we’ve brought you a Mascherano interview. A little over three years ago, he spoke about his first season at Barcelona and his hopes for the Copa América, and that time he impressed us, too. Mascherano, who signed a new four-year deal with Barcelona the other day – with other players on the way out – is in good form these days. Indeed, we reckon he has improved his game since going there. On Sunday he was the only player to attempt more passes than Messi, completing 96 out of 102. As OptaJose said, contribution. Perhaps a man playing his third World Cup should have been able to organise his team-mates before the half-time break. Still, from what he says, it appears the whole game was a learning experience for many after a long time without a really Big Game.

Bah, vulgarity! This interview, then, was conducted by Marcelo Sottile and Hernán Claus, who do a fine job of probing him about the Twilight Zoney, Not-quite-a-boy-anymore Wonder, Messi. They ask if it’s Messi who’s picking the team, criticise the players’ performance as opposed to the tactics, and bring up the thorn-ridden question issue of the forwards helping out in defence, an unfavourable contrast constantly drawn by commentators throughout the tournament. They pursue him, but this is Javier Mascherano after all, so he’s not without a barbed response when they get a little soapy: “Did Leo look happier in the second half?” “I don’t know.. I play close to him but it’s not as if I spend my time staring at him.” Gol de Mascherano! 

Finally, a word on the text. Unlike some other interviews that appear on the net, this Olé piece is quite consistent; it’s not a cut-and-paste job. There are some strange jumps within answers but we suppose they are due to pauses. We tried to make him sound natural rather than translating his words literally, so the translation is about 300 words longer than the original. We think it’s worth a read, though. Disagree? Pegame, que me gusta.

tz4

  • Sabella has said you are one of the players he speaks to most about football. What do you make of Argentina so far, from the inside?
  • I’m more a manager than a player these days, amn’t I?.. Nah, seriously, me and Alejandro do talk a fair bit, mainly because I enjoy analysing games. It’s not as if we’re swapping ideas – he’s the manager after all. My take on things is always going to be different. And from my point of view, then, having seen the Bosnia match again, I can say that despite us not being a team that tends to dominate possession, we definitely have controlled matches better in the past. And in more favourable areas of the pitch… Sitting too far back, Bosnia allowed us to play our way out, but from the half-way line on, Leo and Kun were too isolated. We couldn’t open them up. Everyone could see that because if there’s one thing this team has shown is that it knows how to open teams up.
  • Did you watch the match again off your own bat or because the manager asked you to?
  • We saw it because it was on tv here. We were able to watch it all together, actually. That’s where you really start drawing conclusions. It was the same story with the Nigeria-Iran match.
  • Sabella admitted the starting line-up was a mistake. How much blame should go to the formation and how much to the players?
  • Alejandro made his decision based on the match we played against Bosnia last year. This time we used the same system, against the same team, and the match turned out different – even though that night Leo didn’t play. Sometimes the other team changes their set-up, too, and causes you problems. That night they put pressure on our defence and wouldn’t let us out and we had to bypass the midfield. If Bosnia hadn’t sat back this time, Leo might have received the ball in more space. Whatever about tactics, though, the players have a part to play, too. That’s why, after half-time, besides the substitutions, we were conscious of the need to play thirty yards further up the pitch.
  • You were spread out across the pitch without putting pressure on the man on the ball. Sabella had hardly asked you to do that.
  • Exactly. Not using the system properly meant we left ourselves with one extra player at the back even though we needed someone else up front.
  • Was the improvement down to the changes or the players?
  • When we talk about the changes, it’s important people understand it’s not just a question of names. Hugo (Campagnaro) and Maxi (Rodriguez) were having the same game the rest of us were. The thing is it’s not always possible to change your tactics and keep the same players. So you have to make substitutions. What came afterwards was a mixture of both things. The team is used to playing with four at the back. Besides, having two strikers means Leo can look for the ball in deeper positions, adding an extra man to the midfield. And when he gets the ball, as in the goal, he has two pass options as well as the possibility of using the others as a decoy and going on a run himself.
  • Did Sabella consult the players at half-time to see if you agreed?
  • No. Alejandro saw what had to be done and, obviously, he made the decision. Besides, in the middle of a match it’s hard for a player to figure out what’s needed. When half-time comes, the first thing you want to hear is what the manager has to say. He had a chat with his assistants and then he told us what we were going to do in the second half.
  • In the collective imagination, and especially after what Leo said later, the impression is that now Messi is picking the team.
  • It’s a fair question. I know Leo well: Messi would never pick or sideline any player. That’s not how he is. He’s a lad who would never choose one player over another, that’s not his buzz. In fact, he’d feel bad if he had to… Besides, there’s a manager there to make those decisions, so if he did, it would be completely disrespectful to Sabella. The truth of the matter is that the team is more used to playing one way because 90% of its matches were played that way. We’ve played with five at the back a couple of times, but once it was because we were playing at altitude, where you have to adapt… Another time, against Venezuela, it was because el Pipa [Higuaín] wasn’t available; and against Bosnia, because Messi wasn’t there… We know what Messi is like. The fact is the group respects him greatly and has a great deal of affection for Alejandro, too. Anything else would make him feel bad, it’d be a lack of respect. In any case, we’ve never done it before and we’re hardly going to start doing so in a World Cup.
  • In that respect, weren’t you surprised to see Messi so forthcoming in a World Cup press conference?
  • I have to be honest: I didn’t see the press conference.
  • He seemed to be setting terms, never mind the fact that his preferences are well-known.
  • Leo has always made clear how he is most comfortable playing, but he’s also been willing to accept other things, eh. Otherwise we wouldn’t have lined up against Bosnia as we did. It wouldn’t even have got to this; the team would have been different.
  • Can you see that from the outside it looks like la Selección has to play the way Messi likes otherwise he doesn’t respond? 
  • The public have to realise that Leo knows a thing or two about football, that’s why he’s the best player in the world. He’s not a fool, Messi…. He’s not some kid who just says “I want to play like this, no two ways about it”. He knows every team is different. Apart from that, he wants the best for Argentina. When he says he wants to play a certain way, he means from kick-off… But he knows that at different points during a game, or during the World Cup, the team is going to change around.
  • Would he accept a 4-4-2 if Argentina have to play against Germany in the quarters?
  • Yes, because Messi wants to win. Of course he would. Totally.
  • What about playing with five at the back again, would he take that?
  • If that’s what the team needs, yeah. It didn’t work out this time because the match didn’t allow it. Leo isn’t wedded to a 4-3-3, neither should Alejandro have got all the criticism he has, because whatever about the changes in the second half, it’s us who play the matches. The responsibility is shared, it’s not just a question of the manager. The players on the pitch weren’t getting the ball into the right positions. The manager changing things around should be considered a positive thing. Making two changes at half-time in a World Cup match when you’re winning is something to be commended. He was convinced the team would play better that way. That shows we don’t just have a smart manager, but an honest one – one who doesn’t care about what people might say about him, only in what’s best for the team.
  • Did Leo look happier in the second half? It looked like he suffered in the first half but by the end he was enjoying himself.
  • I don’t know. I play close to him but it’s not as if I spend my time staring at him. I’ve got enough things to worry about on the pitch… It’s clear that he did look a different player because he started to get on the ball more. That was because the other team couldn’t get so close to him… In the first half, one was marking him, and behind him two or three more were lined up. Later, they couldn’t do that as there were more players to take care of. That’s when Leo started to run things.
  • Has Sabella talked to you about changing systems during the World Cup?
  • Yes, and we’ve tried a few things out. The fact is we don’t really even play a 4-3-3. It’s more like a 4-2-2-2, or a 4-3-2-1… The systems are defined by how the players are set out. There’s one sure thing: we have three forwards and an inside left who’s practically another forward. Then there are two other midfielders, one whose there as a stopper and the other who’s somewhere between attack and defence. That’s the basic outline of this team, whatever the names on the pitch. That’s our team. We all know, though, that at some point we’ll probably have to play 4-4-2… or at some point in a given match, at least, we’ll have to, because not all matches and teams are the same… I’ll say it again: if Leo was the one picking the team, we wouldn’t have started the World Cup with five at the back.
  • Were you surprised at the change in formation right in the first match of the World Cup?
  • No, because we had worked on it in training. When the manager decides on a particular way of playing, he tells you why, because he has to convince the players. Not Mascherano or Messi, but whoever he’s talking to. That happens in any team in the world.
  • How much talk is there among the group of how little the forwards help out in defence? It’s better playing with three up front, but they have to work, too.
  • Because they’re three number nines… There are moves when they can come back to give a dig-out but others when they can’t… Besides, there’s another thing: playing with them, we can’t keep up. There is no transitional phase of play. We’re so direct it’s impossible to keep up, ’cause they go at light speed. If the full backs can’t get there, less so the midfielders… A lot of the time, if the move isn’t finished off, we’re left a little unbalanced. Usually, if an attack doesn’t work out we’re well set up, as the forwards cover the space in front of us, but when a move breaks down we have to have our wits about us and cool the flames, calm everything down (hay que abanicar, abanicar hasta que alguno vuelva) until one of them gets back. The thing is when you’ve gone sprinting forward, and especially on the big pitches they have in Brazil, it’s harder.
  • That would make things easier on the defence, alright.
  • Yeah, but the chances we create tend to be really good, and in a World Cup this open it’s not every team that can create the same amount of chances our forwards do. They can get a goal out of nothing.
  • In Messi do you see someone ready to make this his World Cup?
  • To me he looks really mature, but it’s a maturity I’ve seen him acquire in the last three or four years. It’s not as if he got here and changed from one minute to the next. I heard him saying in one interview he did that he’s older now, he sees things differently – and not just with regard to football. When you grow up, you see things clearer. For me, he’s at the perfect age, and he’s dying to pull off something incredible, because Messi is capable of pulling off something like that.
  • Is that precisely what this team needs? A while back you said that you were all stars at your clubs but with la Selección it was different.
  • Yeah, pretty much. I really think that, that’s why I said it. Elsewhere we’re stars. People might see you win trophies with Barcelona, with Real, with City, or in Italy or France, but the Selección is what matters. Of course it is… Here we are to give it another go. As we said before all this started, it’s in our hands. And in life the sweetest thing that can happen to you is that things are in your hands.
  • When 2006 ended, all we were left with was a picture of you crying.
  • Yeah, well, I was very young, then…
  • Maradona gave us an interview back then on the plane home and said: “I don’t want to see Batistuta crying again, or Mascherano in tears again. What we need is to get back to winning.”
  • Definitely. We all want, and need, Argentina to win. Day-to-day you start thinking and dreaming about Argentina making it to the final, just the idea that we could all experience something like that together… We hope and believe we can pull it off, but it’s tough… In Germany we did everything we could but the ball wouldn’t go in. It’s not easy to win a World Cup, but it’s not easy either to explain why because not everything is down to luck. Lots of things have to come together. First of all, though, you have to play well. Otherwise, no-one, not even luck is going to give you a helping hand.