Javier Mascherano deserves to win Copa America with Argentina
One of the most compelling narratives of the Copa America Centenario has been Lionel Messi's quest to finally get his hands on a senior trophy with the Argentina national team. So close in the 2014 World Cup final, closer still in last year's Copa America final, maybe this, at last, could be his moment.
But there is one man who has been waiting even longer -- and who, in his marathon international career, has come even closer. No one, not even Messi, deserves to do a triumphant lap of honour more than Javier Mascherano.
The "little boss" as he is known, has been part of the national team for 13 years. He made his debut in June 2003, before he had even played a senior game for his club side, River Plate. But Argentina had seen enough of him at Under-20 level to know that they had uncovered a player for the long term.
By the time of the 2004 Copa America in Peru it had already become impossible to imagine an Argentina team without him. And there, just turned 20 years of age, it seemed that he would have a taste of glory. In the final he carried out a superb marking job on Alex, Brazil's playmaker, providing the platform for his side's dominance. Argentina were good value for their 2-1 lead when, with the last kick of the game, Adriano swivelled to fire home a stunning equaliser. Argentina were too stunned to fire in the penalty shootout, and Brazil emerged victorious.
As they did again in the next Copa, three years later in Venezuela. Argentina touched the heights in that campaign, with Juan Roman Riquelme dictating the rhythm and a youthful Messi providing some extraordinary moments. They were so dominant in some of their games that Mascherano even let himself off the leash, breaking forward to score in consecutive games. Once again, though, they were ambushed by Brazil in the final, blown away 3-0 by the power of their opponent's counter attack.
With those setbacks it means that Mascherano has played four finals with his national team and been on the losing side every time. He is running out of chances. Now 32, the next World Cup in Russia will presumably be his swansong. The likes of Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria might well have it in them to aim for the 2019 Copa in Brazil, and maybe beyond, but Mascherano is closer to the end of the line.
For the moment, though, he looks very much at his peak. His Barcelona teammate Dani Alves told the Brazilian media last year that he regards Mascherano as the most under-rated player in the world. Tuesday's semifinal win over the U.S. offered some evidence for that view.
A stereotype exists of Mascherano that he is all clenched-fisted determination, with a will to win that is reflected in his crunching tackles. He is all that, but much more as well. Pep Guardiola would never have taken him to Barcelona and played him at centre-back without the ability to pass the ball.
Argentina's long term No. 14 can organise the team from deep and he also has an extraordinary ability to read the game, to see the danger early and snuff it out. Clint Dempsey never had a kick in the semifinal; every time the U.S. threatened to open up the defence and bring Dempsey into the game, there was Mascherano, arriving on the scene, breaking up the move and passing the ball on quickly and wisely.
He was flawless on Tuesday night. If anything, his importance to the cause was only emphasised by the fact that he was not flawless in Saturday's quarterfinal. Venezuela's 15 minutes of dominance began after a rare Mascherano error, when he was caught in possession close to goal by Salomon Rondon.
A Mascherano mistake led to a generalised wobble throughout the Argentine defence but they came through it to win. Now few could begrudge him another flawless night on Sunday and the chance to get his hands on that trophy.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.