One is the team's midfield dynamo, the other the grab-a-goal hero. Javier Mascherano and Fernando Cavenaghi have so far been the corner stones of Argentina's campaign in this FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003, coming up with the goods again in the heart-stopping quarter-final clash with the United States. But that triumph is history now. Looming on the horizon are Brazil, no less, the rivals the Albicelestes have been dreaming of since the competition began. The two young stars let FIFA.com in on the passion underpinning what promises to be a spectacular semi-final.
Friday night and minute four of time added-on in Abu Dhabi. Argentina are desperate to find a way past a water-tight United States defence, but the equaliser is just not coming and it looks like the North Americans are going to pull off the upset and make the final four. Up he pops. Carrying a knock and with his shirt torn from more than 90 minutes in the heat of the fray, Javier Mascherano refuses to give up. Taking the weight of the team on his shoulders, he rises in the box and beats Steve Cronin with a near-post header: "It's the most important goal of my life, and my first in a World Championship. Me and Cavenaghi were only talking about how brilliant it would be to score in a match like this in the tunnel before the game," says the number 5.
"I didn't know who to hug first, I just needed to release all the tension built up inside. I saw the game slipping away from us," continues the man who, despite being a giant for his side in the last two encounters, is quick to point out that success is a team effort, "I don't win the games on my own! I do tend to shout a lot on the park, though. But everyone does their bit towards victory around here."
If it is not already obvious what the River Plate midfielder means to this young Argentinian side, just listen to the what his coach, Hugo Tocalli, has to say: "Javier's temperament is amazing. I'm not surprised by him any more because I've known him since he was 14 years old. He's a born winner, and he'll be running things in the senior Argentinian team before long. I was desperate when they mistakenly told me he would have to miss the Brazil match. Luckily, he's seen just the one yellow card so far in the tournament."
Friday night and minute 9 of extra time in Abu Dhabi. Franco Cangele is brought down in the United States' box and Spanish referee Eduardo Iturralde González puts his whistle to his lips for a penalty. Captain Fernando Cavenaghi places the ball on the spot, as calm as ever despite the electric atmosphere. He takes a short breath, looks up, and slots home, sending the fans in the stands into ecstasy. Argentina are semi-finalists: "To be honest, we suffered an untold amount, but it was because we let so many chances go begging. The team played really well, though, and I think we're going into the match against Brazil in peak form."
While he has yet to truly shine, Cavenaghi is one of the tournament's top goal scorers with four strikes. And every one of them has been crucial: a last-gasp penalty against Uzbekistan, two against Egypt (one a golden goal), and this last down-to-the-wire deed against the North Americans: "I'm happy with my strike rate, but I don't want to bother my head with the leading goal scorers' table. The important thing is that the team is winning and doing what we set out to do," says the River Plate striker while clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary: "She goes everywhere with us," he explains.
b> Eagerly-awaited classic
South American football's hottest and most hard-fought tie has moved temporarily out east, in what will be the fourth clash of the year at youth level. Hugo Tocalli's disciples triumphed in the South American Youth Tournament in Uruguay with a goal from Marcelo Marrusca. That tense, bruising victory set the Argentinians up to take the title.
"It's always special playing against Brazil. As far as I'm concerned, the idea of those yellow shirts just makes me even more motivated. They're all-or-nothing games. They're keen to get started, are they? Well, so are we!" said Mascherano.
The two South American giants met again in the continent's U-17 Championship, held in Bolivia in May, with Tocalli and Marcos Paquetá running the show from the sidelines. The game ended 1-1, but the trophy went to the Albicelestes once more: "It's true we've hit a purple patch against them lately. It'll be a special match, but we have to get it clear in our minds that the real goal is to reach and win the Final," said Cavenaghi.
The last time the two sides met was in August, in the final of the Pan-American Games Santo Domingo 2003. Once again, victory and the title went to Argentina, who won the day thanks to a Maximiliano López goal. "Of course, coming up against Brazil one more time makes everything that bit more interesting. It's like a mini final in itself, where the stakes are as high as they can be. We hope our winning streak holds out," said Tocalli.