On 15 December 2003, Javier Mascherano was a disconsolate figure, his gaze fixed on the floor and tears running down his cheeks. He was part of the Argentina U-20 team that had just lost the semi-final of the FIFA World Youth Championship to Dani Alves’ Brazil in Abu Dhabi and not even an encouraging pat on the back from his coach, Hugo Tocalli, brought him much comfort. “This shirt means so much to me, it’s hard to explain,” Mascherano managed to mutter to FIFA.com afterwards.

More than a decade has passed since then, and in the intervening years the Santa Fe native has won two Olympic gold medals, appeared at three FIFA World Cups™ and amassed more than 100 caps for the senior Argentina side, having made his debut in the team before he had even appeared in the domestic top flight for his club, River Plate.

Lionel Messi may wear the captain’s armband in coach Alejandro Sabella’s ensemble but Mascherano is the team’s spiritual leader. His tears flowed again after Argentina’s quarter-final victory over Belgium, but this time there was no sadness, only joy: the country had reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 24 years.

“We’ve been fighting for this for so long and now we’ve done it,” Mascherano told FIFA two days after the encounter. “Of course we’re delighted, but we need to turn that into confidence and get our strength back quickly. We need to remember that we’re one match away from playing in a World Cup Final and that we haven’t made history yet.”

‘The team comes first’
Mascherano, who was eliminated with Argentina in the quarter-finals both at Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, has played all 480 minutes for his country in Brazil so far, successfully completing 406 passes and winning back possession 37 times. It is therefore hardly surprising that he is a fan favourite with supporters in his homeland.

“I try to stick to my principles every time I go out onto the pitch,” said Mascherano, images of whom in confrontation with imposing Belgium players and having on-pitch arguments in English against Switzerland have done the rounds on social media. “In every game you can win or lose but you always have to respect the same principles.”

Mascherano’s next outing will be against the Netherlands, a team Argentina have faced several times in decisive matches at past World Cups. “There’s a traditional rivalry,” said the central midfielder, who still vividly remembers the Dutch victory over Argentina in the 1998 quarter-finals, when Dennis Bergkamp scored a breathtaking winner.

“I was at home watching it on television and I was just as disappointed as everyone else,” Mascherano said. “This Dutch team have got a lot of experience and they’re hungry for success after losing the Final in 2010, so we’ll have to be on our guard. We’re excited and we feel strong. We know we can put in another good performance.”

Mascherano is also aware of the vital role Messi has in the side, commenting: “Leo has rescued us in a few matches but we can’t just rely on him. The team should be there to support him just as we were against Belgium, when he controlled the game with everyone’s help. That’s what we’re aiming for: even though we know we have great individual players, the team comes first.”

He is hoping they can come out on top in the Final at the Maracana Stadium on 13 July too. To get there, Mascherano may well issue another rallying cry like the now famous one he gave his team-mates ahead of facing Belgium: “I want joy again and we need to give everything to get that.” He is now just 90 minutes away from making his dream come true.