At the age of 26, Javier Mascherano is the youngest player to captain Argentina at the FIFA World Cup™ since Diego Maradona at Mexico 1986. And it was El Diez himself who, shortly after being appointed to La Albiceleste helm, announced his intention to build his team around his new skipper. “My side is Mascherano and ten others,” said El Pelusa, a sentiment he has often repeated since.
A tireless central midfield ball-winner, to date he is the only Argentinian to have twice won gold at the Olympic Football Tournament. What is more, he has appeared destined for greatness ever since former Argentina supremo Marcelo Bielsa included him in a group of youngsters taken to Korea/Japan 2002 to gain experience and rub shoulders with the senior squad.
A keen admirer of former France star Claude Makelele, Mascherano rose through the ranks at River Plate before making his first-team debut for Los Millonarios in August 2003. Curiously, Albiceleste boss Bielsa was already such a fan that he gave him his senior national team debut a month earlier, in a 2-2 friendly draw with Uruguay.
At River, he wasted little time in establishing himself as a first-team fixture and fans favourite, even inheriting the nickname El Jefecito (The Little Boss) from his midfield predecessor and club icon Leonardo 'El Jefe' Astrada - until recently head coach of the Buenos Aires outfit. Mascherano’s displays for club and country earned a big-money move to Corinthians, where he won the 2005 Brazilian championship, before joining English outfit West Ham United the following year. Unable to settle with the Hammers, he made the switch to Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool and quickly became an integral member of the side and has since racked up over 120 starts in all competitions.
On the international stage, Mascherano was a key member of the Albiceleste side that finished fourth at the 2003 edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. He subsequently went on to cement a starting berth in the senior side in time to help Argentina reach the final of the 2004 Copa America, where they lost to fierce rivals Brazil. However, victory and a gold medal at that year’s Olympics in Athens did provide welcome consolation.
A stalwart of the team during Jose Pekerman’s reign at the Albiceleste helm, Mascherano helped his country to a runners-up berth at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2005 - again won by A Seleção - and appeared in all five games at Germany 2006, a campaign that ended with penalty shoot-out heartache against the hosts in the quarter-finals. Come the 2007 Copa America, he was once again a fulcrum of the Argentina side which stormed to the final only to fall once more to their Brazilian bête noires, with El Jefecito notching goals against Paraguay and Peru along the way.