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.