“I think my time [at Barca] is coming to an end,” he admitted. “It’s logical that, after so much time, I don’t have long left at the club.
“But I don’t say that with any hard feelings, completely the opposite. I think I have had the most wonderful years of my career at the club. I’m never going to forget it.
“I’m one of those people that think that you have to know when to end something. And I would like to be able to end it at the right time. That will not depend completely on me, but I’m of that inclination because when I left Liverpool it wasn’t good for me, and I didn’t like it.
“I didn’t like having the feeling that I could go back to Liverpool and there was still something toxic there. And I don’t want the same thing to happen to me at Barcelona.”
— Javier Mascherano
A more misunderstood player hasn’t played for FC Barcelona. Ever. He arrived unheralded, continued misunderstood and will leave underappreciated by too much of a fanbase that never understood his qualities, never understood why Pep Guardiola wanted him, why every coach from Guardiola on used him as their on-pitch coach and intermediary. “El Jefecito” wasn’t just a nickname for Mascherano. He sees the game, and understands it. He is the best tackler that most of us have ever seen because of that understanding.
He was always compared to Busquets and found wanting, even though at Barça he wasn’t a DM, but rather a CB who occasionally moonlighted up the pitch, the ideal Barça CB for those who still cherish their Puyol shirts. Because like the eternal Capita, Mascherano was full commitment. He never moved with doubt or hesitancy, even when events would prove him wrong. For a man whose middle name should be “Not,” as in “not a CB,” “not a DM,” Mascherano was one of the first names on the team sheet for coach after coach, even as supporters would look at the occasional header that he lost, nod and say “See? Not a CB.”
But he was to Guardiola. Why? Because like Puyol, life is a series of fires to be extinguished for Mascherano. One over there. POOM! Whoops! There’s another. POOM! I once joked that he would slide tackle his grandmother, before realizing there is always truth in a quip. If Grams had the ball and he was on defense …
Full commitment isn’t to be taken lightly. Puyol flung his body about the pitch in full defiance of logic, age and potential harm. He took a shot to the face, because that’s what had to happen, jutted out his barrel chest and kept on putting out fires. When Mascherano made a play that saved his team, something that he did time and again, it was with the same look on his face, that assassin’s gaze of the hard man that he was.
His speaking voice surprises, oddly high-toned and delicate, in the same way people were always surprised to hear boxer Mike Tyson speak. You expect forces of destruction to roar like Godzilla when they speak, to have a deep, rumbling voice akin to that of Darth Vader, because our perception of sporting stars is usually defined by what they do, rather than who they are in real life. This makes sense, because the field of battle is really all that we know of them, but real-life quirks such as voices throw us for a loop. It is likewise with his bright, engaging smile, something that takes over his entire visage. But like a switch, when it’s time for work, that is that.
He was always hard for supporters to understand or embrace because of his demeanor. No highs, no lows, just work. The moment that humanized him for so many came not as a consequence of a match action, but grief — the heart-rending grief that we all felt when Tito Vilanova died. Mascherano played a match and when the job was done, so was he, felled by fate’s hammer blow like the hero in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The image endures, and most of us still can’t look at it for very long without having everything come flooding back.
He felt it, felt everything, but it wasn’t until then that we knew how much, the pain that could be carried in the soul of a lion.
When he came to Barça, phrases such as “card magnet” were being bandied about. His disciplinary record will come as a surprise to those people, but not to those who understand his commitment. For his team to excel, a group that needs him, he has to be on the pitch. So the heat-seeking missile of the Premiership became an adaptable cruise missile for La Liga. And he stayed on the pitch.
Throughout his time at Barça, he became the avatar for those players who are watched by their detractors, silent during good play as they lay in wait for an error. Intervention after intervention, goal-saving tackle after goal-saving tackle, and silence. But the first clunky header leading to an oppoent shot on goal, and “See? Not a CB.”
But he was, in the same way that Puyol was for some, “not a CB,” even as he was the ultimate Barça CB, a creature that is more very deep-lying DM than CB. Rio Ferdinand is a CB. Puyol or Mascherano is a Barça CB. It’s anticipatory skill, proactive rather than reactive, a willingness to accept risk, to understand that there is nothing behind you as you play up near the middle of the pitch. That player needs calm, commitment in full and decisiveness.
Barça has been lucky in that it has had a succession of dominant, controlling CBs. From Puyol to Mascherano to Umtiti, even as the last has a very different character he has the same mien: all business. That stance reassures. You know that when that last man is barreling at the defense, facing the last man for Barça, from Puyol to Mascherano to Umtiti, you have the confidence that the correct decision will be made. It’s security. When we talk about what CBs provide, it is that quality that is first and foremost. David Luiz, because of how he functions and presents himself, will never be seen as secure, even as he has become a top-class CB. He’s always a little wild, always on the ragged edge of control. Puyol, Mascherano, Umtiti, even when the last is doing a flick in midfield, never seem anywhere near out of control. It’s all business and security.
CBs are the accountants of the defense, and Mascherano is an accountant. He makes everything make sense. Match commentators were always fixated on a dead notion of him as a player who makes rash challenges. In the past, this was the case. Under Guardiola and at Barça, he learned a different way, that psychic la pausa that allowed him to be decisive but never, ever rash. Barça isn’t that place, and matches aren’t that time. He would leave his feet as a last resort, or sometimes to send a message. He would rise to his feet as his victim lay there, and stare down at him with rock-hard eyes. The message was sent, and clear: not here, not now, not ever.
That is Mascherano, and why the news of his leaving is sad. He’s a club legend that many won’t view in that way. He has done so much, fought so hard, felt so much, given everything. Like Puyol, he loves the club so much that he understands when he has nothing more to give, and has no desire to stay a second past that. Because it’s love, but it’s also business.