Still just 24, Argentina's Javier Mascherano has already enjoyed the kind of success many a veteran would be proud of. The holding midfielder has participated at both FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups, two editions of the Copa America as well as the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Nor has his club experience been any less impressive, the player having made the last four of the Copa Libertadores with River Plate, and the final of the UEFA Champions League with his current side Liverpool.
If that were not impressive enough, the man considered by Sergio Batista as "the best central midfielder in the world" is the only player at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 who knows what it's like to win Olympic gold. Four years on from doing precisely that in Athens, and just hours before his side's debut against Côte d'Ivoire, the Argentinian spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about what it means to take part in the Olympics, his side's chances at this year's event and his dream of becoming the first man from his country to win two gold medals.
FIFA.com: Javier, your coach here in Beijing, Sergio Batista, recently rated you as the best in the world in your position. How did hearing that make you feel?
Javier Mascherano: It's always pleasing to be spoken well of, but I try not to get carried away by praise like that. As you accrue more time and experience playing in Europe, you realise what it is you do well and what it is you need to improve. It's true that I aspire to be among the very best, something my club demands of me as well, but there are many good pros playing in my position.
Can you tell us what it is about the Olympics Games that makes them so special?
It's the way you experience the event, especially as a footballer. Perhaps here in our hotel, you could say it's no different from a World Cup. But when you arrive at the Olympic Village, it's a real eye-opener and you see so much more. I had the good fortune to be in the Village in Athens, and I came across stars I never imagined I'd meet. That was a real delight and an aspect we thoroughly enjoyed.
Can you recall any particular athletes you came across?
I was next to Roger Federer and Yao Ming, people you don't expect to see up close. I suppose it's like the feeling fans get when they meet their idols. That's what so nice about the Village. There's a palpable party atmosphere there, and you can walk about the place without anyone bothering you. Everyone is equal. This year, I'd like to meet some of the USA basketball team, or at least get to see one of their games.
You have already won an Olympic gold. How did it feel when you received your medal?
It was the ultimate, for a variety of reasons. Not only was it was our first gold medal for Olympic football and the only major honour to have hitherto eluded us, but it came 52 years after our country's last gold medal at the Games. As a lad, I never imagined I'd participate in the Olympic Games, which made the experience all the more fantastic. It will be very hard to emulate what we achieved there - deservedly winning the title and without conceding a single goal.
Do you know that if you won again this year, you would become the first Argentinian to win two Olympic golds?
That would be incredible! And no I wasn't aware no one has ever won two gold medals. However, just being able to take part at a second Olympic Games is a dream for me. It's a rare feat for a footballer. Before heading over here, I did think how nice it would be to give Argentina its second football gold. Of course, it would also be remarkable from a personal standpoint.
Would you say Brazil are your biggest rivals in the race for the gold medal?
Brazil have brought their best players with them to try and win the only title missing from their collection, so we're under no illusions as to how hard they will be trying to win this competition. However, we need to be wary. No one is talking about the Netherlands, who have a great team. We'll also have to wait and see how Italy do and how the opening games pan out. It's a tight schedule and there could be surprises. As ever, winning one's opening game will be fundamental.
Speaking of opening games, what can you tell us about your first opponents Côte d'Ivoire?
Those of us at Germany 2006 already know what they play like. They've been improving rapidly in recent years and are a team to be wary of. Some of their players, like [Bakary] Kone and [Salomon] Kalou, are doing very well in Europe and deserve respect. That said, we need to be thinking about how we want to play the game. I'd go as far as to say, the biggest threat to Argentina will be Argentina itself.
And of course, with so many attack-minded players in the side, you can expect to be covering a lot of ground...
Well, it all depends on what we want to do. We're aware we have players who attack more than defend, but we're going to need everyone to track back. Nowadays footballing standards are more even, so unless we all work with the same intensity it will be difficult to achieve our goal.