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Player to Watch: Mascherano making waves in Argentina

27 September 2004

“Of all the youngsters to have come through in recent years, the one who impresses me most is Javier Mascherano. He is a monster of a player and destined for great things.” High praise indeed for one of the hottest properties in Argentine football, especially when the words are those of Diego Armando Maradona. Adored by press and public alike, the central midfielder looks to have already secured his future in the Albiceleste at the tender age of 20.

Leading by example in the Argentine youth sides he represented at U-17 and U-20 level, Mascherano has become more associated with the national team than his club side River Plate. And that is not so unusual if you consider that the player made his full international debut (in a friendly against Uruguay last year) before his first team debut with the reigning Argentine club champions. “Javier was not happy about having to wait so long to start in the first division as he could see his team-mates from the youth sides already playing. Nobody could understand it,” said one of his closest friends.

As if to show his club what they had been missing, the young midfielder turned on the style for his country. This year alone, Mascherano has tasted international glory at South America’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Chile, finished runner-up in the Copa América in Peru, and then topped it off with a gold medal at the Athens Olympics.

For Leonardo Astrada, central midfielder in Argentina’s Copa América-winning side of 1991 and current coach of River Plate, Mascherano was the player of this year’s Copa América: “What he did there didn’t surprise me. He is a real phenomenon and will soon be a major figure in world football.”

Sergio Batista, a member of the FIFA World Cup-winning side of 1986, shares Astrada’s assessment: “Technically he’s supremely gifted and wins a lot of balls. But his best qualities are his character and his personality. He works tirelessly on the pitch and has great presence. He also takes up good positions and links up the play really well.”

Coming of age
After his meteoric rise through the youth sides, Mascherano truly came of age at the Copa América in July. The determined youngster made such an impression in Peru that his team-mates voted him their player of the tournament. The press, for their part, hailed him as the answer to Argentina’s central midfield question for the next ten years. “Hearing all that is wonderful, and I still can’t believe I’m living this life. The truth is that I’ve been incredibly lucky,” said the blushing player.

But those who have worked with Mascherano – a confessed admirer of Edgar Davids and Patrick Vieira – feel that luck has had very little to do with his success. Hugo Tocalli, Mascherano’s former youth team coach and current assistant to José Pekerman with the senior side, says he has not been surprised by what the player has achieved to date: “When he first came to us at 15, we knew he was destined for the big time. He can tackle, pass, organise the side and he’s constantly talking to the players. He’s definitely a breed apart.”

Others like Argentine midfielder Javier Zanetti echo the sentiment expressed by Tocalli. “Mascherano used to be in the reserve teams that we would spar against, but even then there was something about his personality that seemed way beyond his years. It was obvious that he would soon be joining us.”

An all-rounder
Mascherano has shown that to make it to the top, a lot of hard work is required. Between club and international commitments, the player has not had a holiday for two seasons. Take last year for example. He was playing in the Argentinean league with River Plate in late 2003, but had to travel to the United Arab Emirates with Argentina for the FIFA World Youth Championship. Despite being the team’s outstanding player, Mascherano was ruled out of the third-place game against Colombia for an accumulation of yellow cards. So did he kick back and watch the game from the stands? Not a chance. The youngster grabbed the first flight to Peru and made the starting line-up in the final of the Copa Sudamericana for River Plate.

Not long after, he was packing his bags again to represent the U-23’s in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Chile, and followed that with an arduous league and Copa Libertadores campaign with his club. After the Copa América in July and the Olympics in August, the club offered him a well-deserved one-week break, which he promptly declined. “It took me ages to break into the River team, so I don’t want to miss a single game,” the midfielder said. The player’s progress has not gone unnoticed in Europe either, and there are many who are predicting an imminent move to the Old Continent.

Mascherano will almost certainly have crossed the pond by mid-2006, though he himself is quick to play things down: “There’s still an awful long way to go and we have to take it slowly. I’ve already played in world championships at youth level, but to play in one for the senior side would be simply the best. For me, what’s important is to keep producing the goods for my coach and team-mates, the rest will come in good time.”

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