The finalists' unsung heroes

The finalists' unsung heroes
Argentina’s Javier Mascherano getting in his inch-perfect tackle to divert the ball just as the Flying Dutchman Arjen Robben is about to pull the trigger, with goalkeeper Sergio Romero readying for a save during their semi-final.

Years from now, if Argentina go on to win the World Cup tomorrow, the Fifa highlight reel will likely show the semi-final penalty shoot-out win against the Netherlands as a key point in their success.

It will play Sergio Romero's saves in slow motion and Maxi Rodriguez's goal which clinched victory.

What you may not see is the image of Javier Mascherano, groggy from a first-half clash of heads, struggling to find his feet.

What you may not see is Argentina's midfield anchor then recovering to impose himself on the game and denying the Dutch a victory deep in regulation time when he stretched his right leg to deny Arjen Robben a likely goal.

It was a tackle that Mascherano said "tore his anus". Whether that was a figure of speech or he was speaking literally, it shows the commitment the man brings.

What you may also not see is Mascherano, moments before the shoot-out, grabbing his goalkeeper, going in close and leaving him with this thought: "Tonight, you make yourself a hero."

In a team where Lionel Messi wears the captain's armband, where Messi's goals make headlines, the dirty work that Mascherano does often goes unnoticed.

Few give him credit for marshalling both the team's midfield and defence, barking instructions on how to close down and then doing the dirty work himself, like taking opponents' danger men like Robben out of the game.

While Messi is the quiet captain who leads by example, Mascherano is the sergeant major who commands his troops. National coach Alejandro Sabella described him as the "emblem within our national squad".

When Diego Maradona took charge of Argentina for the 2010 World Cup, he made the midfielder his captain and said his side would be "Mascherano and 10 more".

The 30-year-old from San Lorenzo has come a long way from being branded a temperamental brute at Liverpool and having to endure a topsy-turvy time at current club Barcelona, where he has largely played out of position, in central defence.

But in Brazil, Mascherano is back doing what he loves and does best, which is patrolling the midfield and protecting his backline.

How well he performs this role will come into the spotlight at the Estadio do Maracana as Germany's strength lies in the midfield players.

As crucial as his defending skills will be, he will also be an important link to attack. As the tournament's leading and most accurate passer, much of Argentina's attack moves will have to come from his supply line.

Said Mascherano: "We know that on Sunday, we will play the game of our lives.

"We hope to crown this with the trophy but either way I feel so proud of this squad. It is a dream for all of us to return to Argentina to this possibility."

With Mascherano at the heart of the side, the dream of returning the two-time Cup winners to the pinnacle of world football may just become reality.

This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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