In the end, it was not to be for Argentina.
Mario Goetze’s goal in extra time clinched the 2014 FIFA World Cup for the Germans, netting them their fourth trophy, putting them level with Italy and just one behind Brazil.
For the many Brazilians inside the Maracana, there was satisfaction that their neighbours and arch rivals hadn’t managed to get their hands on the coveted trophy, an achievement that would have certainly rubbed salt into their wounds after having witnessed their own team getting dumped out of the tournament in acrimonious fashion.
Argentina had a fine run to the final. They started off slowly and barring the games against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium, they were truly pushed to the limits in each of their games. But they held their own and managed to get the job done, getting over their opponents to eventually make it to the grand finale. The 2014 run to the final was a rather unconventional one for the Argentines. Unlike in the past, this campaign wasn’t highlighted by superb, silken attacking play that their opponents found too much to handle.
True, Argentina had in their ranks, and as captain, arguably the best player in the world in Lionel Messi. He did win the Golden Ball, which was FIFA’s way of pandering to popular opinion and ensuring their commercial interests. But Messi wasn’t even the best player on his team. While he did show his class in leading the way in the group stages, as the tournament progressed, Argentina became more effective than effervescent.
Mascherano wasn’t captain but led from the front
And the leader of this effective pack and Argentina’s MVP during the tournament was Javier Mascherano, who truly had a spectacular World Cup for the Albiceleste. Messi wore the armband, but Mascherano was the vocal leader on the pitch, marshaling the troops, and helping keep the Argentine unit tight and compact. He was, in fact, the incumbent before Alejandro Sabella handed the captaincy to Messi, so the midfielder was just continuing on in his leadership role sans the armband.
Having been witness to watching the midfield enforcer play centre-back for Barcelona the last few seasons, it was an absolute joy to watch Mascherano at this World Cup operating in his favoured deep-lying midfielder role. His marking, tackling and retrieval of the ball were all superb and his distribution once he obtained possession was fantastic, in a throwback to his Liverpool days and his initial years at Barcelona. Acting as the pivot, he helped protect Martin Demichelis, a pronounced liability at the back at club level the last season, and Ezequiel Garay, not the quickest of defenders.
He was crucial in keeping the Argentines organized and disciplined while defending, an aspect that their neighbours Brazil ended up paying a heavy price for not addressing. For long the shortcoming of South American teams, even the best of them, Mascherano ensured that it would not be their Achilles heel this time around.
Mascherano was amongst the leaders in tackles, balls recovered and distance covered among midfielders at Brazil 2014. And while it was his possibly game-saving tackle against Arjen Robben in the semi-finals that made people look up and take notice, efforts like those were what Mascherano routinely put out through the course of the tournament.
After conceding two goals against Nigeria in their final group game, Argentina went three full games without conceding another, only to be breached by G?tze’s superbly taken volley in the summit clash. And while he was excellent throughout the tournament, he reserved his finest showing for the semis and the final. While everybody spoke about how well Nigel de Jong man-marked Messi in the semi-finals, Mascherano’s equally lock-in defence against Robben and Wesley Sneijder was overlooked.
In fact, as the match wore on, and the Dutch began to enjoy possession and embarked on a late charge, it was Mascherano who the entire Argentine team suddenly looked up to. And in the team huddle before extra time and penalties, it was once again Mascherano, and not Messi, who was giving the team talk, motivating and inspiring his troops.
The unsung hero – recognized by his opponents
Going into the final, Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger singled out Mascherano’s importance to the Argentine side calling him “the leader of a pack of wolves”. And Germany found it tough to get past that wolfpack in the final as Mascherano went toe-to-toe with perhaps the best midfield pairing in the competition in Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos.
He may not be the big, bad wolf, but through his performances at Brazil 2014, the diminutive Argentine’s reputation as one of the best holding midfielders in the world has been restored. He led his side to their first final in 24 years, and they came close, really close.
But the loss in the final notwithstanding, when the dust settles around the 20th FIFA World Cup, and people begin to look back at the names that stood out, the names that shone the brightest, most of the talk may still revolve around Messi, but Mascherano’s huge contribution to the cause will not be lost on them.