When it comes to sport, half of the attraction for a supporter comes from being able to have your opinion heard. Our heroes demand respect, and we’ll gladly take on a conversation in their defence. Making sure our heroes are held in high regard is one of the many joys of being a devoted supporter of any sport or club. It can spark a good debate, but more importantly, we want them to be remembered – we don’t want others to neglect their impact on our clubs, on our respective generations, and perhaps most importantly, on the sport itself.

When you take on the impossible debate of ‘Who is the greatest of all-time?’ you get your usual suspects. In basketball, it’s Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. In Hockey, it’s Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. And of course, in football, it’s Diego Maradona, Pelé, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But every now and then, certain players come around that make it harder for us to gauge their influence and overall lasting appeal. They’re often not regarded as one of the greats, but we also know they’re no average player either. They’ve made differences, they’ve had classic moments.

‘How will he be remembered?’, We ask ourselves. We try to justify their talent before asking another question: ‘Okay, I know he’s underrated, and I know most of my fellow peers and supporters rate him, but when he hangs up the boots and the game moves on, how will he be remembered?’ These are questions that every passionate fan, nostalgic journalist, and pundit has asked themselves when a certain player enters the twilight stage of their career. 

Javier Mascherano is now at this stage – he’s 32 – and this scribe wants to know the answer to those questions.

The Argentine is well-known, and his compatriots and others from all over the world have their opinions on the former River Plate midfielder. So I ask, in these times that we live in, with social media and what not, why not ask the observers of the game directly? Let’s hear the stories and opinions on the man they call El Jefecito.

 

 La Albiceleste: 10 and who? 

 

It’s 2008 and Lionel Messi, Juan Román Riquelme, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez are the gifted and highly marketed stars on the national team at the time. Four players with Latin flair, all able to strike fear into defenders. Despite the abundance of talent at the time, things for La Albiceleste were sour on the pitch.

Round nine of the CONMEBOL 2010 World Cup qualifiers were upon them and the squad had yet to earn a win in a competitive match in the whole of 2008. Heading into a match against rivals Uruguay, the senior team had gone five games without a win.

Per usual, this old South American rivalry was being hyped up as a must win for Argentina. TyC Sports, an Argentine sports channel, previewed the match via the program Estudio Futbol. As it happened, 1986 World Cup winner and Argentine legend Diego Maradona was on the show, and when asked what he thought about the national side at the moment, he offered a comment that will live on forever in Argentine folklore. “Yo digo que Mascherano y diez mas,” the former Barcelona hero said, which translated to English means, “I say Mascherano and 10 more.”

In the eyes of one of the greatest players to ever grace a pitch, there was only one player wearing the white and sky blue stripes that was indispensable. Mascherano, in his eyes, was the most important player Argentina had, and he said it on-air for all to hear. It’s quite clear how the former Napoli man will remember his compatriot.

Although many knew that Mascherano was an important player, they thought the then-Liverpool midfielder could never be considered their most valuable footballing export. Yes, he had already made a name for himself as a quality defensive midfielder and a regular starter on Merseyside, and yes, Argentines still had vivid memories of the promising young lad who adorned the famous red-sashed kit of River Plate, but he wasn’t in the mould of their more attractive players. On Maradona’s comments alone, many were divided.

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“I always say that Messi is the best player in the world, so I didn’t agree with that,” says Andre Brener, a 25-year-old data analyst from Buenos Aires who remembers when Maradona made those comments. “But I could understand why he said that and why people could agree with it,” he added. Brenner wasn’t alone. Many laughed at the comments; it was just Maradona being his controversial self.

A couple of weeks after those remarks were made, AFA chairman Julio Grondona would appoint Maradona as head coach after Alfio Basile resigned following a 1-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Chile. One of Maradona’s first courses of action was making sure he stood by his TyC comments – he made El Jefecito captain. As usual, there weren’t many questioning Mascherano’s ability as a ball-winner, but being given the captain’s armband was another controversial issue.

When Maradona announced his choice for captain of Argentina today, I must admit, I was more than a little sceptical,” said Amin Malik, his blog post being published to Bleacher Report the very day news broke regarding Mascherano’s promotion. Malik continued, “Although Javier Mascherano is, in my opinion, the best defensive midfielder in the world, I do not think he is any more capable of captaining Argentina than George Bush is at winning a freestyle rap battle, or being president of the United States, for that matter.”

Looking back, Malik’s comments on Mascherano seem insane; however, speaking of George W. Bush, Maradona’s tenure as head of La Albiceleste was as good the former governor of Texas’ time as President of the United States. Simply put, Argentina disappointed under El Diego’s lead, and at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa they were defeated 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals. 

Many Argentines questioned both their coach and their players, but according to Nicolas Cantor, an Argentine-American journalist for Univision, there were two players who still stood out among that poor performance. “I could add to the phrase – Mascherano and Tevez plus nine. In that game where we lost 4-0 to Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, those were the only two players that you could tell gave it their all despite getting eliminated by Germany for the second time in a row.”

Despite the occasional support for Mascherano being worthy of the armband or of his place in the Argentine national side, many did laugh at Maradona’s infamous comments at the time. However, four years after Argentina’s quarter-final exit, those that laughed at what they heard on TyC weren’t laughing anymore.

For the 2014 World Cup Brazil campaign, some changes were made to the squad, there was a new head coach and Messi was now the captain, but just before the tournament reached its end, before Argentina was set to face Germany in the final, it was El Jefecito who was still the de facto leader. Messi wearing the armband didn’t change that.

No, they were definitely not laughing anymore.  The former River Plate man was still the leading voice and motivation of the locker room in that tournament, a tournament that will go down in history as his Magnum Opus. However, before we discuss Mascherano’s Stairway to Heaven, let’s talk River Plate. Let’s talk of La Banda.

 

 River Plate: fans’ player and Leonardo Astrada’s heir 

 

A cold and gravelly voice could be heard all through the boarding terminal in which FC Barcelona was entering inside Tokyo’s Narita airport. The players were on the way home from the 2015 Club World Cup final against River Plate, a game in which they won 3-0. The raspy voice that came from the terminal audience that gathered to see the Catalans got louder and clearer.

A few people were not happy with Mascherano and someone captured the moment and uploaded it to YouTube. “You have no people to call,” the River Plate fan turned Mascherano heckler said. He added more insults, growing louder, and apparently revealing the reason behind his harsh words. “Do not forget – tell him to come here and say hi to us that son of a bitch!” The video, recorded by an unknown source, likely another River Plate supporter, captured the moment further.

“I’m from River, son of a bitch money grubber! You’re Barcelona because you have money,” another Argentine fan shouted and repeated, his words falling on Barça players and personnel, their heads turning toward the direction of the camera and their faces illustrating confusion and disappointment.

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Somewhere in the Blaugrana pack was Mascherano. He likely heard it all. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to believe these angry supporters were only agitated by the fact that the Barcelona centre-back had apparently ignored them and didn’t say hi. It’s likely a combination of disappointment after a loss, a former player of your club on the opposition winning side, and the sudden feeling of betrayal when that former homegrown talent looks unrecognisable in a Barcelona tracksuit.

“River Plate fans always loved Masche but what happened in the FIFA Club World Cup left some of them angry,” says Ian Teperman, a 25-year-old industrial engineer from Buenos Aires and a long-time River Plate supporter who was at the match. “I was there, we chanted his name when they were warming up but he didn’t acknowledge the crowd. After that, we chanted again in the match and he didn’t answer. But what really hurt was when he ran 50 metres to celebrate with Luis Suárez for the third goal,” he added.

The overall sentiment of the words in that video is that of River fans feeling as though El Jefecito had forgotten his roots, and Teperman’s account of what transpired backs up these claims. With that said, this is the only tangible blemish on Mascherano’s reputation with River Plate support – everything else is squeaky clean.

The animosity that arose in that airport doesn’t linger with most fans of Los Millonarios. The fans of the Buenos Aires club want him back and the feeling is mutual for Mascherano. He has certainly not forgotten his roots: “I’ve always said that I would like to finish my career at River, which would be like going full circle because I started there,” the Barcelona man explained to Fox Sports in 2015. Furthermore, River Plate president Rodolfo D’Onofrio also shared his admiration of the former Liverpool midfielder in an interview with Argentine publication, Ole. “I told Mascherano that we are waiting for you. River people love him and he’s going to return.”

Ah, the returna South American staple brought on by the high number of exported talent from that comes from the region and goes on to play in Europe. Homecomings are most times magical to their respective Hinchas, or diehards. Obviously, it remains to be seen if River Plate will need a player like Mascherano when he leaves Barça or if he will even be at the physical level they require their players to compete at.

Nevertheless, if he does return, there will be a huge cause for celebration on the day he steps back onto the Monumental pitch, where cameras will follow his every step from the dressing room to the pitch. The situation that took place at the Tokyo airport will likely be forgotten as well if River Plate’s beloved “little chief” returns. Such things are often forgiven when a player chooses to return to the team that gave them their first shot.

After all, it was during his two seasons with the Buenos Aires club, from 2003 to 2005, that his nickname was spawned, a nickname that comes from winning origins. In English, El Jefecito translates to ‘Little Boss’. River Plate’s original boss was Leonardo Astrada, another no-nonsense defensive midfielder and long-standing captain. It is for these same qualities that Mascherano made his name for both the youth and senior team.

Astrada’s departure in 2004 prompted Mascherano to fill El Jefe’s role permanently, and supporters knew they were going to see a player that had already debuted for the senior national team under Marcelo Bielsa at the age of 19. “He had the qualities of River’s greatest defensive midfielders – Merlo, Astrada, Almeyda among others. Relentless, passion and tidy with the ball,” says Teperman, remembering his first impressions of Mascherano in the red-sashed kit.

During his 46 appearances with River Plate, he won the 2003-04 Clausura championship, played in two Copa Libertadores semi-finals and, according to Teperman, even had a song that said “Bring 11 Mascheranos to win the cup.” He was loved.

As a result of those two individually outstanding seasons with River, Brazilian outfit Corinthians acquired the Argentine’s services for US$15 million. When asked about Mascherano only being able to spend two seasons with La Banda, Teperman expressed that he’s used to it and that “good players don’t last in South America”. He continued: “We can’t compete against big European salaries. Higuaín, Alexis Sánchez, Lamela, we couldn’t enjoy any of them more than two years. But when Masche left we knew that this type of leader only appears once in a while. Everybody loved him, it was unanimous.”

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El Jefecito’s stint with Corinthians was defined by prolonged injury; he joined them mid-season in decent form but ultimately suffered a season-ending injury, and then he started the following campaign injured as well. As it happened, Mascherano and his compatriot Carlos Tevez, who was also with the Brazilian outfit, signed for West Ham United in the summer of 2006 for an undisclosed fee.

The young man from San Lorenzo had arrived in London, but it wouldn’t be Upton Park where he made the most of his time in England – it was to be Anfield. The people of Liverpool’s red side were about to feel what River Plate’s supporters felt, but it wasn’t going to be as black and white.

 

 An Argentine in Liverpool 

 

‘West Ham charged over Mascherano and Tevez deals’, a Guardian headline said in March 2007, with the London club being accused of breaching two regulations, U6 and U18, “which forbid third-party player ownership from potentially influencing events at the destination club”. West Ham’s actually ownership of both players was questioned and Mascherano’s time with the Hammers was a sad one.

Prior to West Ham being charged for breaching regulations, Argentina national coach, Alfio Basile, said that he hoped “for God’s sake that Mascherano can go to Juventus,” according to another Guardian report. “I hope both leave that club as soon as possible.”

Juventus wasn’t El Jefecito’s next destination, it was to be Liverpool. A couple of weeks before the Premier League charged the Hammers for breaking the rules, Mascherano was officially added to the Reds, and made his debut for Sheffield United in February.

James Nalton, founding editor of World Football Index and Liverpool supporter, remembers his initial impression of the Argentine’s transfer to Liverpool and said that “getting in a midfield which contained Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and an increasingly impressive looking Momo Sissoko would be a tough ask.” Nalton continued: “It soon became apparent why Liverpool paid almost 20 million euros to bring him to the club.”

In total, he made 139 appearances in a Liverpool kit, and during that time he gained the same reputation he had earned everywhere else as a tough-tackling, consistent protector of a back-line, and a player who distributed the ball well. Supporting Nalton’s claims of Mascherano’s immediate impact, LFCHistory.net recalls that “in only his 11th game, he was Liverpool’s best performer in the Champions League final against Milan in Athens.”

That game was a tough one, as Mascherano and team-mate Xabi Alonso had to stifle the attacks of Kaká and Clarence Seedorf. Unfortunately, Liverpool couldn’t overcome the Italians and lost the final 2-1. Liverpool fans were impressed with Mascherano’s efforts, however, and voted him man of the match on Liverpool’s official website.

“The Argentinean embodies everything Liverpool currently lacks in midfield,” Nalton added, his words echoing what almost every other Liverpool fan would say.

Still, though, there’s a certain feeling that the current Barcelona defender’s impact is underappreciated in some circles, and Liverpool Echo sports journalist Kristian Walsh noted in a recent piece this was certainly the case during his time at Liverpool. “Is Mascherano one of the most underrated players of the past decade? He was at Liverpool. Alonso was the orchestra, Gerrard was the star; what purpose, then, did the Argentine serve in Rafa Benítez’s midfield? He did not have the class of Alonso, nor the transcendental nature of the captain,” Walsh explained. “He brought something else, though. A tenacity, a desire, a consistency. If the forward players of Benítez’s meticulous system had been breached, Mascherano was a formidable barrier ahead of the defence.”

Walsh’s words will evoke truth and agreement from those that have followed and watched the Argentine, but some Liverpool supporters will never forget the way Mascherano exited the club. Nalton explained that the “negativity surrounding his departure is mostly due to the fact that he was interested in joining Barcelona while still wearing a Liverpool shirt, but a lot of this was down to the way that transfer was handled by the management in what was a tumultuous time for the club as they changed owners.”

The 32-year-old midfielder and defender has since commented on his side of the exit: “I wanted to leave in another way, but they didn’t give me the chance to.” Mascherano added that the club made “things difficult” for him. The Liverpool support that carried bad blood after his departure was soon alleviated of that anger when Mascherano dedicated his 2011 Champions League victory over Manchester United to Liverpool, saying that “this is for them as well”.

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Mascherano’s summer 2010 move to Catalonia definitely put a rift between himself and certain factions of Liverpool supporters, but as Walsh explained, “none of that should matter when remembering what he did for the Reds during his time on Merseyside.” Unfortunately, for all the brilliant play Mascherano displayed as a Red, he couldn’t win any titles during his time there. But he would win plenty with Barcelona and came awfully close to triumphing over Germany to win a World Cup.

The Argentine’s best was yet to come.

 

 Stairway to Heaven 

 

Just prior to Mascherano’s 2014 World Cup campaign, the player had won eight trophies with Barcelona, he was now partners with Gerard Piqué, and he was eager to bring a much-anticipated World Cup trophy back to Argentina. In addition to his growing trophy cabinet, he already had two Olympic gold medals, one in 2004 in Athens and the other from 2008 in Beijing, thus making him the first male footballer since 1968 to achieve that double.

The same praises that described Mascherano before his arrival in Barcelona soon followed him there as well. Every Barça fan will tell you of his characteristics with similar enthusiasm to that of Liverpool and River Plate supporters.

Barca fans know what they’re going to get with Mascherano, but it was the above and beyond performances with Argentina at the 2014 World Cup that sticks out most amongst everybody’s minds – River Plate, Liverpool, Barcelona, you name it. From this scribe’s point of view, El Jefecito’s best performances are as a defensive midfielder and that is where he shows his true value with La Albiceleste.

This was never more apparent during Argentina’s journey to the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil. A final in which, as stated above, would see Messi as Argentina’s official captain. But it was the little chief’s spirit, superb defending, and lead-by-example attitude that got them there. Right from the onset of that tournament, Argentina was desperate to make the world forget their embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Germany four years earlier, but the road was a hard one and Argentina never quite hit their full stride.

In the midst of all that was the San Lorenzo native, Argentina’s own warrior. “Give Mascherano a rifle and he alone will take back the Falkland Islands,” joked Nicolas Cantor, explaining what Argentines really thought and still think of their beloved national figure. As it happened, his leadership was on full display when, before extra-time in the round of 16 match against Switzerland, he gave his team words of inspiration and encouragement while Messi stood in a more reserved manner toward the back. The little genius that is Messi has his own personality, and speaks at his highest volume with his left foot, but in moments like knockout stage World Cup matches; it is Mascherano’s vocal approach that is just as vital.

According to renowned football journalist Jonathan Wilson, just before Argentina were set to face Belgium in the quarter-final, Mascherano said in a pre-match speech that he “was sick of eating crap”. The former Liverpool midfielder was referring to his country’s known history of underperforming. Mascherano yet again tapped into his side’s collective mind and set a standard. After Argentina’s 1-0 win over Belgium, the South American team secured a penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands in the semi-finals. But before the team even got the shootout, Mascherano was there to put them in that position.

It was injury-time and Mascherano was analysing the Netherland’s attack. A pass was about to come from the Dutch central midfield, and Mascherano could feel it. Sure enough, the pass came and it was to Arjen Robben; Mascherano pounced and trailed Robben’s defence-splitting run into the box with every stride longer and more intense than the last.

Robben then drifted wide and Mascherano left his feet just as the Bayern Munich man pulled the trigger and, amazingly, blocked the shot – latch ditch effort successful. Mascherano was now God-like in the eyes of his country. He had saved Argentina from going down in the last minute and did so in typical Jefecito fashion, typical River Plate fashion. 

In the end, Argentina would lose the final 1-0 to Germany in overtime. But Mascherano’s efforts, performances, and national pride in that tournament will live on forever.

That was his Stairway to Heaven moment; that was his gateway to world football immortality. Many Argentines and club supporters mentioned this particular moment when asked what will be remembered most when he hangs up the boots.

When you think of some of the most recent and greatest defensive midfielders of all-time, you think of Gennaro Gattuso, Edgar Davids, and Claude Makélélé to name a few. But make no mistake, when Mascherano retires, El Jefecito will be a model for consistency – a defensive benchmark. That is how he will be remembered. Like many of us, he can’t please everyone, but he certainly commands respect, even from his critics. 

When the day comes to hang up his boots, he will surely be remembered as one of Argentina’s greatest players

By Carlo Valladares    @C_V_News