At the confluence of need and opportunity, magic can happen.
Magic is one of those things that happen in sport that makes everything that happened before fade into insignificance. We watched the match yesterday, and can’t even now recall who it was that drew the penalty. All we can remember is the discussion, then No. 14 stepping to the penalty spot.
Had the keeper fully realized who it was, he would have just stood there in the center of the goal with his arms outstretched. Because of course, Mascherano was going to blast it right up the middle, hitting the ball as hard as he could. With that penalty as with his game, subtlety isn’t the thing. It’s the direct action, the straight path as the most effective route for a man whose nickname should be “Poom!” It’s the sound his foot makes when he strikes the ball, the sound a sliding tackle makes that resolves the actions of a miscreant, the sound of magic.
Rakitic said, after the match that he wanted to take it, but “the President” (Pique) told him to let Mascherano take it.
In the mixed zone after the match, Mascherano said, in comments to BeIN Sports:
“I just took it as something anecdotal, more a show of affection [from my teammates] than anything else. At first I tried to get out of it, but under pressure from my teammates and the crowd I decided to take it on.
“It would have been a fun moment to remember in years to come had I missed it. I wasn’t sure about it at all, honestly, but it was difficult to say no.”
Like any defender, Mascherano was only thinking of the worst thing that could happen, that he would miss. It wouldn’t have mattered, as the score was already lopsided as could be, against an Osasuna side that was relegation bound and deservedly so. But like everything he does, the goal was Serious.
Immediately on social media, fingers clattered on keyboards that the goal was probably a finale, a farewell gesture from a lion who would be leaving the club in the summer. Not that this did anything to lessen the magic of the moment. The Camp Nou shook to its rafters, there was unreserved joy on the bench, even the BeIN announcing team couldn’t help screaming in exultation, caught up in the moment of the Maschegol.
The last time Javier Mascherano scored was Feb. 25, 2010. It’s been a while. He has played more than 300 matches for Barcelona, and has come close to scoring a few times. That goal was also a milestone, the 500th with Luis Enrique in charge. Do no small things, for the man affectionately known as “Jefecito,” the “cito” leavening the otherwise stern quality of calling him a boss, even if he is.
It would be a shame if that goal was reduced to a little moment, because it wasn’t. That goal was the only way that the team had of saying “Thank you” to a man who has been a rock almost from the moment he arrived at FC Barcelona.
Pep Guardiola requested his signing, and everyone immediately took to their favorite forum to rip at his passing ability, his propensity for picking up cards and the rough play that would make him a red card waiting to happen, his direct, physical qualities and how ill-suited they would be for Barça. Then Guardiola revealed his plans, making Mascherano a center back and de facto on-field captain.
Whenever a coach had something to impart to the team — Guardiola, Vilanova, Martino, Luis Enrique — you would see him huddled up with Mascherano on the sideline, as the Argentine stalwart just sipped from a water bottle and nodded.
As Luis Enrique said after the Osasuna match, “Mascherano? Obviously his job isn’t to score goals but he’s a top player and a born competitor.”
He is the most successful, most misunderstood and unfairly disliked player in the history of a club that has had as much success during his tenure with a team as Barça has had. Too short, too this, too that, position this, out of position, rash, etc. And every coach who had access to his services kept playing him, as if they knew something that his detractors didn’t. Good matches and actions were greeted with silence, errors with an almost-gleeful “A-HA! I TOLD you! Not a CB. See?”
Pep Guardiola didn’t care, Tito Vilanova didn’t care, Tata Martino didn’t care, Luis Enrique didn’t care. Mascherano played, worked as hard as he could and gave his all, every moment of every match, for his team. If he was a Catalan transplant from La Masia, he would be a club legend, an iconic player whose name is spoken in hushed tones, like the last undersized lion of a centerback who, like Mascherano, treated the world as a set of fires to be put out. Yes, both he and Puyol are proactive, but the beauty of both is that they are gloriously reactive. Sometimes, the right action has to be decided in an instant that converts into motion. Sometimes you guess right, sometimes you guess wrong. It’s part of the game. The thing is the aggregate.
Mascherano was, is and if he stays next year, will be blaugrana. That goal, more than a charming little bonbon for a veteran player, was an acknowledgement of that status. The universal reaction was another one.
Barça kicked the crap out of Osasuna. They were supposed to. It was Osasuna. Messi got a brace, Alcacer got a brace, Gomes got a brace. These goals were either expressions of genius, or “it was only Osasuna,” dependent upon who scored them. That is a squabble for another time. Alena subbed for Messi, as the vibrant, genius present allows a glimpse of a bright, bright future in a season that is a sequence of elegant denouemonts. But man!!!!, a Maschegol. This season will be, as Barça Chief said on Twitter, defined by “Hey, remember when … ” The PSG comeback, the Classic winner at the Bernabeu and now the Maschegol.
What a season, a span of time defined by moments that make us scream, grin, cry and hug a complete stranger. Trophies come in many forms.