Mascherano, the heart of the team

A commitment to their country is a common denominator between him and Maradona and one of the reasons why the coach puts his name first on the list.

Powered by automated translation

Think back to past World Cups and, in any successful campaign, the bond between captain and manager seems unbreakable. There has been a chain of command and mutual respect; leadership on and off the pitch. Think of Bobby Moore and Sir Alf Ramsey, Lothar Matthaeus and Franz Beckenbauer, Dunga and Carlos Alberto Parreira, Didier Deschamps and Aime Jacquet and Fabio Cannavaro and Marcello Lippi. The manager could not have prospered without the captain and vice versa.

It is one of the reasons why a choice of manager is so newsworthy. When Argentina defeated Greece on Tuesday, Diego Maradona made the man who is his footballing heir, Lionel Messi, the youngest player to wear their armband in a World Cup. But only because its normal recipient was rested. Maradona's chosen captain was revealed in his first press conference as manager. "My team is [Javier] Mascherano and 10 others," he said in 2008. "I want Mascherano to be my captain because I believe he is the Argentinian player who is closest to the idea I have about the Argentinian shirt - sweat for it, sacrifice for it, being a professional, being close to teammates."

It was an offer the Liverpool player could not refuse. "To us he is like God," he said of Maradona then. Yet their differences can seem to outnumber their similarities. Attacking virtuoso and defensive midfielder; Boca Juniors legend and River Plate fan. But a commitment to their country is a common denominator. Mascherano is one of two Argentines to win gold medals at successive Olympic games while, during the often tortuous qualifying campaign for the World Cup, his club form suffered after lengthy journeys back from South America.

An ethos is shared: Maradona's has blurred the boundaries between acceptable and unfair tactics, Mascherano's has brought a flurry of red and yellow cards. Maradona's carried him, and Argentina, to the World Cup in 1986. Mascherano's may yet see him emulate his idol and manager. First, however, the captain risks being overworked. It is becoming commonplace to field a pair of holding midfielders but Argentina have just one: Mascherano. Breaking up the play can be an arduous task, especially today, given the fluency of Mexico's passing game.

Maradona had two specialists at such a task at his disposal but Esteban Cambiasso, who erected such a formidable barrier in front of Inter Milan's defence, was left off the squad. In his place, Mascherano is flanked in midfield by a gifted winger, Angel di Maria, and an ageing playmaker, Juan Veron, who set a World Cup record against Greece by completing 135 passes, only one fewer than the Greek total. He can excel in possession, but few sides will grant Argentina as much of it as the deeply defensive Greeks.

Against superior opposition, the midfielder's duties change; the ball must be recovered before it can be distributed or, in Di Maria's case, dribbled. Moreover, the suspicion that Argentina's weakness lies in their back four increases the importance of shielding them. Jonas Gutierrez is not a specialist right-back, Martin Demichelis was found fallible when South Korea scored and while Gabriel Heinze remains a willing competitor, his best days are probably in the past.

Faced with that context, others may have opted for the security of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Not Maradona; he relies on his captain to do the job of two men. So when today's teamsheet contains Mascherano and 10 others, one has special duties. Those others include Messi, the best player on the planet, but there are reasons why his is not the first name Maradona writes down.