When Alejandro Sabella became manager of Argentina's national team in 2011, he decided to make a change of captains. Sabella wanted Lionel Messi to wear the armband. Javier Mascherano, who had been the captain since 2008, gracefully handed over the captaincy to Messi.
But Mascherano remains an important leader for Argentina, which faces the Netherlands in the World Cup semifinal. The 30-year-old defensive midfielder is anchoring a defense that has not allowed a goal in the last 253 minutes of World Cup play.
It was Mascherano in the defensive midfield spot that stifled a Belgian attack that had launched 26 shots on goal against U.S. goalie Tim Howard. Belgium could only muster four shots on goal against Argentina's defense.
While Mascherano’s ability to defend is propelling Argentina into the semifinals for the first time since 1990, controlling his temper might be the best news this World Cup. Mascherano has a history of losing his temper for club and country.
Mascherano had the worst disciplinary record in the 2009-2010 season while playing with Liverpool in the English Premier League. Mascherano accumulated 12 yellow cards and two red cards during his final season with Liverpool, along with two yellow cards in four matches at the 2010 World Cup.
In the 2011 Copa America tournament, Mascherano would captain Argentina for the final time against Uruguay. After being sent off late in the game, Mascherano handed over the captain’s armband to his Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi. Argentina went on to lose that game in a shootout. During a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador last year, Mascherano was sent off the field for kicking the driver of the medical cart as he was wheeled off the field.
Mascherano's cooler side has prevailed this World Cup, earning zero cards in five appearances. But Mascherano admits it is going to take more than good behavior to advance.
"I think the word to use is intelligence," Mascherano said. "At this stage you play with heart and soul but you don't get anywhere if you’re not intelligent in the tactical aspect, managing the game."