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Mascherano, Argentina's captain without an armband

The Associated Press
Mascherano, Argentina's captain without an armband
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Argentina's Javier Mascherano gestures at the start of a news conference in Vespesiano, near Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Sunday, July 6, 2014. The sign reads in Spanish "one country." Argentina will face Netherlands on their semifinal match of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament on July 9 in Sao Paulo.(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) -- Copa America, 2011: Argentina's Javier Mascherano hands the captain's armband to Lionel Messi after being sent off late in regulation time in the quarterfinal against Uruguay. Argentina loses the ensuing penalty shootout as the host nation is eliminated from the tournament.

Since that bitter moment, Messi has held on to the captaincy of Argentina, but Mascherano remains the inspirational voice in the locker room.

Known as ''jefecito,'' or little boss, the 5-foot-6-inch (171-centimeter) defensive midfielder has fired up Argentina for what has become its best World Cup run since 1990.

''We're in a place where Argentina hasn't been for a long time,'' Mascherano said ahead of the team's semifinal against the Netherlands. ''These opportunities come only so often and you can't let them go by.''

Coach Alejandro Sabella decided to make Messi his permanent captain when he took charge after Argentina's Copa America exit. Mascherano, Messi's Barcelona teammate who had worn the Argentina armband since 2008, took a step back without making a fuss - just as he does on the pitch.

A hard-tackling ball winner, Mascherano stays behind when Messi and Argentina's other attacking players surge forward.

His diligent work to recover possession just above the defensive line helps explain why Belgium's attack failed so emphatically in Argentina's 1-0 win in the quarterfinals.

''I think the word to use is intelligence,'' Mascherano said. ''At this stage you play with heart and soul but you don't get anywhere if you're not intelligent in the tactical aspect, managing the game.''

Clever though he may be, Mascherano has a tendency to lose his head in crucial moments, like he did in the 2011 Copa America.

While playing for Liverpool, he had the Premier League's worst disciplinary record in the 2009-2010 season.

In a highly unusual expulsion last year, he was sent off in a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador for kicking the driver off a medical cart as he was being wheeled off the pitch.

Mascherano so far has controlled his temper in Brazil and has no bookings heading into Wednesday's semifinal in Sao Paulo.

The 30-year-old's deep desire for Argentina to make an impact in the tournament is unmistakable. While many players speak dutifully about how it's time the country ends its long dry spell in international football, Mascherano says it like he means it.

Though he's the only player in the world who's won two Olympic gold medals - in 2004 and 2008 - he has also experienced agonizing defeats with the Albiceleste, including two Copa America final losses to archrival Brazil and a 4-0 quarterfinal mauling by Germany in the 2010 World Cup.

It was reported in Argentine media that Mascherano got the team pumped up before the Belgium game by saying he was ''tired of eating dirt.''

When a reporter asked him Sunday at Argentina's team base in Belo Horizonte whether that was true, Mascherano laughed, but didn't give a clear answer.

''I don't know where that came from,'' he said. ''Obviously what's said in private stays private.''

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