The distinction is important, because it explains a lot about why Mascherano was something special, and why his departure is hitting everyone at the club, everyone who supports the club, everyone who loves Barça football, hard.
As Messi said, “It will be weird coming into the locker room and not seeing you.” Mascherano has been a fixture. And not just a fixture. He has been, even when he hasn’t been playing, the beating heart and soul of the team. When he played, the coach always chose him to relay instructions and tell things that needed fixing. Then El Jefecito relayed the message. Mascherano is the last of a magnificent breed of old-school players, one that gives everything for the club, one that becomes the club.
When Neymar came to Barcelona, many including me instantly tapped him as a short-timer, figuring on three years. Mascherano was different, felt different. His struggles made him more human, his efforts to fit into a sparkling team of dazzling technical skill raw and evident. He was the best DM in the Premiership, and came to Barça as the guy behind Busquets and Toure Yaya, who had to find a way to get into the XI somehow, to play like he believed that he could.
His great luck was that playing CB for Barça is a lot like playing DM, so he was able to assimilate, able to win the trust of a now-iconic coach, to become Barça. The Bendtner tackle, still one of the all-time great plays in club history, amid all the goals, sparkling passes and mesmeric dribbles. It was that tackle that sunk his roots as surely as he demolished the attacker. Nobody ever thought Mascherano would leave. There weren’t really rumors about him until late in his career, because he was a Barça player rather than someone who signed for Barcelona.
Neymar had his moment. That massive comeback against Paris St.-Germain that was led by him and finished by him, was his moment. He chose to forever be a player who played for Barcelona by leaving, by choosing to be the man rather than become part of a tradition, part of the club and supporters that were ready to welcome him. And he left. Thiago Alcantara was La Masia, but he wasn’t Barça. Not in that way. Because you don’t leave. Messi, Iniesta, Pique, Xavi, Mascherano, are Barça. You don’t leave your heart for anything except love.
Mascherano left because he knew it was time. He knew that he couldn’t give any more to the team that he had already given so much for. He left out of love, with tears in his eyes and the admission that his dream was over. He left because he can see, can see Umtiti, can see Pique ready to become a captain, can see Yerry Mina leaping at the bit, a ball of talent and size — and he can see that his time is up.
His departure also marks the passage of a different kind of marker at Barça, as yet another player who understands what it means to be the club, not just play for it, leaves. Puyol, Xavi, now Mascherano. Iconic names. Iniesta will be the next, and he, too, will leave out of love rather than because he had to. The kicks they take, the tackles they make, the abuse they suffer they do it because that is what you are supposed to do. There is a deep level of sacrifice present in players of a certain level and time, that we will never see again. Maldini was a one-club player. Iniesta will be a one-club player. Mascherano feels like he was a one-club player, such was his assimilation into Barça life and lore.
The club is getting 10 million for him from the Chinese club that will rent his services for a season. Harder hearts are talking about his salary, and the room it will create fiscally. Neither of those are anywhere near big enough to close the hole, bridge the gap created by his leaving. Mascherano is a club legend, and I will fight anybody who suggests otherwise. Yes, his play was brilliant, time after time, match after match, even when people insisted it wasn’t. But the play isn’t the thing. The heart is the thing. Mascherano gave his heart to Barça. When Puyol left, he became the lion heart, giving everything for the club. Not just playing, but giving.
His leaving hurts not because it isn’t time. It is. He knows that it is, we know that it is. But his leaving hurts because it’s one more inch of the rope that is the beautiful anachronism that is Barça, the rope that we all cling with the fervor of the devoted. Boards and businessmen grease that rope and tug at it, tell us that the game is modern now. No money, no magic. But club legends argue otherwise, argue that black leather boots might be dead on the pitch, but the footballing equivalent still exists. Iniesta, Messi, Pique, Busquets, Mascherano. Romance still matters, in the beauty of the beating hearts of players who don’t just play for the club, but embody the club. They are Barça
So farewell, legend, and thank you for everything — all that you did but more importantly, all that you gave, which was everything.