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Lionel Messi should thank Javier Mascherano for always being there

Friday 26th January 2018

Tombstone is an excellent movie largely due to Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday. The scene in which he mimics Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo is classic. The outlaw twirls his revolver from side to side, up and down, hand to hand, then back into its holster as only the quickest gunslinger could. The gambler then performs the exact same routine with a tin cup, proving the gun isn’t the measure of the man.

In the film’s closing scene, Holliday lies dying in a sanitarium, ravaged by pulmonary tuberculosis because even legends are mortal. Having said his goodbyes to Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp, he looks down the bed to see his toes peeking out from under the sheets.

Doc giggles at the irony. Every cowboy wants to die with his boots on just as every warrior wishes to die in battle. It’s a point of honour.

Similarly, every football player hopes to keep playing.

Many fans and pundits express confusion when a player stays well past his prime. Why can’t he see it’s time?

Can’t is the wrong word. Won’t is more like it. Such players become our heroes because they possess an undying passion for the game that far surpasses our own. In time their bodies fade. The passion does not. It’s undying.

For me, Javier Mascherano is the football equivalent of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. The Chinese Super League isn’t a Colorado hospice. Other than his love for the game, the Argentine hasn’t a terminal disease. Nevertheless Mascherano is riding into his last gunfight with Hebei China Fortune.

Why? Because riding the bench for Barcelona was like lying ill in a bed on Henry Hooker’s ranch, knowing his best friend was going off to be killed by Johnny Ringo. He had to act.

In Mascherano’s case, there was no longer any Johnny Ringo gunning for Lionel Messi. Neymar has moved on to Paris Saint-Germain.

There was a time Messi needed saving, however, and Doc Mascherano was there for him.

In the 2014 World Cup, Messi was a group stage sharpshooter. He potted four goals and assisted on another, carrying la Albiceleste into the knockout rounds.

He was not so effective afterwards. There was an assist versus Switzerland in the round of 16 and he began the movement that led to Argentina’s winner in the quarters. He and the entire team went goalless against Holland in the semifinal, advancing to the title match against Germany on penalties.

In the elimination phase, as Messi faded, Mascherano came to the fore. Time and again he intervened at the point of an opponent’s attack, breaking it off, regaining possession for Argentina. It was amazing how often he was in exactly the right place, possessing the cool, calm assurance to shoot down a forward or midfielder who appeared ready to break in on goal.

Again, for me, he was Argentina if not the tournament’s most valuable player.

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In the end, Mario Goetze scored late from the left side, away from Mascherano. Argentina then won a free kick in front of Manuel Neuer’s goal. Here was the Johnny Ringo moment. Only, Mascherano couldn’t magically appear from the shadows to kill the outlaw. Messi’s Wyatt Earp had to take the shot himself. He misfired, sending it over. He was still awarded the Golden Ball.

As he is wont, Mascherano faded back into the shadows. He soldiered on for his friend and countryman at the Nou Camp, where they won several more trophies.

This season, though, Messi is resurgent in Neymar’s absence. Mascherano’s 33-year-old legs can’t carry him through La Liga’s grind anymore. He had only played two Champions League matches and seven from Barca’s 20 league games. One was a substitute appearance. The last, against Real Betis on the weekend, was surely a farewell gift.

He deserved it.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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