“My team is Mascherano and ten others.” Those words, uttered by Diego Maradona in his first press conference as Argentina coach, highlighted the importance of Javier Mascherano to his country. The 26-year-old has been wearing the Albiceleste jersey for seven years now, and has become such an important cog in the midfield that he now sports the captain’s armband.
Along with his Argentina colleagues, Masche is now preparing for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. With the big event approaching fast, he gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com. On the agenda were his role as skipper, Lionel Messi’s scintillating form, Argentina’s chances of success and his dream of leading them back to the summit of world football.
FIFA.com: Javier, you have been at Liverpool for a while now. What do you make of it so far?
Javier Mascherano: It’s been fantastic and I don’t get tired of saying that. They’ve treated my family and I superbly right from day one and we don’t have any complaints. Liverpool is a lovely little city too, and it’s growing fast.
What do you enjoy most about the place?
Playing football, of course (laughs). It’s a port city with a lot of hard-working people and it’s grown a lot in the last few years. If I had to recommend places for people to visit, I’d say the best-known sights like the Beatles Museum and Anfield. It’s a lovely city.
I’ve always modelled myself on Claude Makelele. I’ve played against him a few times and on each occasion, he seemed more and more of a special player.
You have obviously settled well, but do you miss Argentina?
Of course I do. I’ve been away for five years now and you always miss home and feel nostalgic about it when you’re away. I’ve gradually got used to it though. Even so, when the fixture list comes out I always check when the season ends so I can start booking flights.
Are you planning to go back home soon or will you be staying in Europe for a while yet?
You never know and I don’t want to be tied down by what I say, but I don’t think I’ll be staying on forever. Right now I’m thinking about playing for another three or four years at the highest level and returning home to play at a good level there. I want to enjoy Argentinian football for four or five years and I’d love to do it at River (Plate), the club that gave me everything and treated me so well.
There are quite a few Spaniards and Argentinians in the Liverpool dressing room. Who speaks the best English?
(Laughs) The coach of course. He’s been here for a long time and he has to speak English more than anyone. Out of all the players, Pepe (Reina) is the most confident. We speak Spanish among ourselves but we talk in English in the dressing room or when we’re having lunch out of respect for the others.
And who speaks the worst English?
Maxi Rodriguez (laughs). Poor guy. He only arrived a couple of months ago and he’s trying hard, but it’s not easy. We’re all here to give him a hand whenever he needs it though.
Fernando Torres has been in wonderful form recently. What can we expect from him in South Africa?
He’s come back in great form and he’s improving his fitness again, which is vital for him. He’s scoring goals and he helps us all as a team. If he keeps this up and he stays fit, he’ll have a great World Cup.
Let’s turn to the national side now. Are you surprised by the change in expectations after the win over Germany?
No, not at all. Football’s all about results: win and you’re the best, lose and you’re the worst. But to me it’s neither one thing nor the other. We have some great players who are in fantastic form and the challenge for us is to reproduce that for the national team, which is something we didn’t do in the qualifiers.
They say it is better not to go into the tournament as favourites. Is that the way you see it?
In the long run what really matters is not what the pundits say but how well you do during that month. Spain and Brazil look a cut above the rest because they’ve both won trophies in the last couple of years, but experience tells me that the World Cup is won by the team that improves through the tournament, not necessarily the one who plays the best. Italy didn’t shine in 2006, Brazil had their uncertain moments in 2002, and France needed a Golden Goal against Paraguay in 1998. We’ll just have to wait and see.
You are more of a team player than an individual star, but you have won a lot of personal recognition in your career. How do you explain that?
Obviously you work hard to improve, although I’m not going to win any personal awards because of the position I play in and the way I play. I just try to do what I do well and help the team, that’s all. Every morning when I get up I know I’ve got to give my all to keep on progressing.
Do you feel uncomfortable about getting so much praise?
I feel very proud when I get recognition, especially when it comes from coaches who’ve worked with me. That means I’m a good professional who goes through ups and downs like everyone else. It makes me blush sometimes though, especially when the praise comes from someone important.
Diego Maradona made you his captain in his first public appearance as national coach. How did you feel about that?
(Pauses) The logical thing to say would be that it doesn’t change anything but there’s no doubt that captaining your country is a tremendous source of pride. It’s a big challenge too, as you have to be able to rise to the occasion. I think I’m able to do the job. I’ve already played in one World Cup and I’m more mature now.
Was there anything you learned at Germany 2006 that you can take with you to South Africa?
Getting experience of international competition. Four years ago I was still playing in South America and I’d never faced players like (Didier) Drogba and (Michael) Ballack. But for the last four years I’ve been playing against the best every weekend and that means when you go out and play in a World Cup you know you’re going to take the right decisions.
Which other central midfielders do you admire?
I’ve always modelled myself on Claude Makelele, though it’s hard to explain why. It’s not a question of me wanting to play like him when I watch him, but I get the feeling he feels and thinks about the game the same way as I do. I’ve played against him a few times and to be honest he seems more and more of a special player every time. There are a few others too. When I started training with the national team I watched (Matias) Almeyda and (Diego) Simeone a lot, and Leonardo Astrada taught me a great deal too.
Lionel Messi is continuing to amaze the world with his performances for Barcelona. What can you and your team-mates do to help him produce the same form for the national side?
We need to hit our usual high standards. None of us produced our best form during the qualifiers but Messi got all the criticism because people always expect something different from him. That’s not fair. They should have criticised 18 or 20 players. I’ve seen him play some great games for the national side, in the Copa America and the Olympic Games for example.
On a personal note, is there anything you can criticise yourself for during the qualifying competition? Peru’s goal at the Estadio Monumental perhaps?
Definitely. That’s a good example of what I’m talking about. I tried to hit the ball against an opponent and out of play but it stayed in and they scored the equaliser from it. That was one of the biggest mistakes I made and I still don’t understand how it happened. It’ll stay with me for the rest of my career, although I’ve learned a lot from it.
In a recent interview, Maradona told us he did not let go of the Trophy at Mexico 1986 and that you will be doing the same in South Africa. Can you picture that at all?
I hope so, God willing, but I don’t want to be egotistical about it. I don’t care who lifts it. The important thing is to win something for the country again. Absolutely nothing can compare to that.