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. 

Demichelis: ‘Stop making my kid cry, man!’

Cábalas, cábalas! The world is a drunken snake-cum-conveyor belt except it’s not fixed to the floor and it moves in several different directions at once! It is a river a-flood ten thousand fathoms deep on whose purely hypothetical bed of mud dead fish feed on the detritus of other dead fish, and it flows nowhere. Order! Order must be established. An Anchor, a Fisherman, an amulet, a stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins, some sense of certainty like the loyal look in an old mutt’s eyes.

Such were, we venture, the night terrors of the Argentine coaching staff. For, as we mentioned yesterday, it appears Sabella has had enough of certain players’ bad performances so far in this World Cup and decided to second-guess himself in a search for security. Of the dead certain starting eleven, when Argentina play Belgium in under an hour’s time (bejaysus), four will have been changed, owing variously to injury (Agüero), suspension (Rojo) and poor form (Gago and Fede Fernández). The curious thing about it is Sabella is – cliché alert – a cautious man yet the certainty he seeks is actually bound up in two players in particular who he obviously likes but has either sidelined from the squad previously or never plays.

Demichelis, you may remember, dear be-flaggèd one, has not appeared for Argentina since the very first matches of qualifying, more than two and a half years ago, when he committed quite the blunder. Biglia, on the other hand, who was called up as a back-up to Mascherano, has long been a favourite of Sabella yet has practically never finished a match and has only played 20 minutes at this World Cup. Another curious element is the fact that the decision puts more a Glen Whelan type than an (in good form) Andy Reid in midfield while seeking to improve the side’s ability to play out from the back with, well, pegamequemegusta can’t think of any ball-playing Irish centre backs. It’s all somewhat back-to-front, certainty in relative novelty. At least Sabella has shown he’s not afraid to make big decisions, especially Given Messi’s predilection for playing with Gago. As he said himself in yesterday’s press conference, though,, winning is what determines whether you were right or wrong; you either look like a genius or a fool. Let’s hope, etc

Finally, this translation is yet another piece by Marcelo Sottile and Hernán Claus, of Olé, whose work we enjoy greatly. Check it out below, pegamequemgusta.

Zatoichi

  • You weren’t even dreaming of the call-up, were you?
  • As far as I was concerned, I was out. When the coaching staff came to Manchester to see Agüero and Zabaleta, they didn’t get in touch with me. I lost hope.
  • So to you the Bolivia match seemed like a kind of death certificate for your international career?
  • Yeah, but I hoped that match wasn’t going to be the last. That dream kept me going. I had been in love with la Selección since my first game under Pekerman in 2005, and I hadn’t been able to finish my time there in the right way.
  • What did you learn from the mistake against Bolivia?
  • I had just got across well and knocked the ball out for a throw. And it was from that throw the mistake came: I decided not to play out from the back. The ball fell on my left foot and I tried to get it up so I could clear it with my right. Their forward got goalside of me and that was that, I couldn’t catch him…
  • How were the following days?
  • Bad. Really bad. In the stadium I loved the most I’d had the worst moment of my career. I’ve gotten injured playing for la Selección – an ankle operation, metal plates in my face – but you accept those things as part of the job. A mistake like that is different… Especially when there are loads of other things behind it: the poor Copa América, the bad start to the qualifiers after losing to Venezuela for the first time ever, the fact that they had raised the prices of tickets for the match so that day the Monumental was half-empty…
  • Did Sabella say anything to you at the time?
  • He was very sincere. We had a long talk before travelling to Colombia. He reminded me of a line el Bambino Veira had once said to a goalkeeper: ‘I’m taking you out to protect you.’ Alejandro added, though: “I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I’m not taking you out to protect you. I’m taking you out because I have to protect the group and at the moment your confidence is rock bottom.” He was right. I’ve had plenty of setbacks in my career, but that one was a knock-out blow.
  • Did you think that was the end of your international career?
  • Well… Look, in training before the match in Barranquilla we were having a kick around and they put me up front. I must have scored about ten goals that day. That’s when I thought: ‘Ah, this is their way of saying goodbye, ha.’
  • You had already had some bad experiences with la Selección, like in 2006 when you were left out of the squad on the last day. You even said you were thinking of giving up football…
  • That was an exaggeration; it was shock talking. Coming back to la Selección this time completely made up for that. That’s why when training started before coming to Brazil, they asked if I was nervous and I answered: “No, I’m enjoying myself. The others have been nervous for months wondering if they’d be called up.” I was out of the picture.
  • And how are you feeling now?
  • Honestly, and with all due respect, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone as happy and with as much energy as me at the moment. Obviously I’m ambitious and always want more, but at the moment all I want is to help the team win the World Cup.
  • So all’s well and you’re going to take things as they come?
  • It’s hard to change at 33. All my life I’ve been schooled and coached the same thing: respect for the ball, whether in Renato Cesarini, River or Bayern Munich. I remember one time, and I’ve never told this story in public, when I was playing in the Champion’s League final against Inter: I was on a yellow and I wasn’t playing well. To be honest, I thought Van Gaal was going to take me off. But then, in front of everyone, he said: “The next time you belt it long I’m taking you off. That’s not what we’re about here.” That had a massive effect on me… Pellegrini, too, in a match against Everton, said: “Even though I don’t want you to take risks, even though sometimes I feel like — and he makes a gesture of something tightening around his neck — I’d prefer if next time you’re going to make a clearance, instead of whacking the ball into the stand, you try to do so with a bit more class. Long balls like that embolden the opposition.” Still, sometimes you just have to get rid of it, take no risks.
  • Are you ready to play?
  • Yes, I’m raring to go. I’m happy and morale is good. We’ve got a lot of support… We have to be respectful, but ambitious, too.
  • How far do you think this team can go? The performances haven’t been great so far.
  • We have to put an end to this quarter-final curse and play all seven matches.
  • After all these ups and downs, you must be dreaming of scoring a header like Tata Brown’s?
  • Well, who doesn’t?… Talking to the press I try to play it safe, but at the same time I have this feeling that if I got into this squad through the back door, it’s because something big is going to happen. Now that I’m here, I can allow myself to dream a little.
  • At least your kid already got his picture with Messi.
  • Bastián, my five-year-old, is mad about football. He watches matches with me and he understands it – and like all kids, Messi is his idol. He has Messi toys, he sees him scoring goals for Barca, he wants to have Messi’s boots, he practices Leo’s moves…
  • It’s not easy, though…
  • A short while back I said to Leo: “Stop making my kid cry, man!” We were in Buenos Aires watching the telly and they showed a video of Messi as a kid, doing keepie-uppies. Bastián started crying. “I can’t do that,” he said, frustrated. I calmed him down and told him: “Don’t worry, either can I.”