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Javier Mascherano’s legs may have gone but his heart has not

The 34-year-old midfielder is the epitome of the bronca, the spirit of defiance that so often propels Argentina, and a voice of reason in a chaotic campaign

Javier Mascherano has spent much of the past week looking beat up. He had a black eye as he gave a deeply necessary press conference last Saturday that helped stabilise Argentina, and finished Tuesday’s game against Nigeria with blood pouring from a cut eye and a scratched cheek. While his performance then had little to do with stability, his presence was still vital. If Mascherano was Argentina’s unacknowledged captain at the last World Cup, it has felt at times here that he has been their unacknowledged coach.

At times in St Petersburg there was something almost painful in watching Mascherano, at 34, look so off the pace. Every time a Nigerian ran at him, it seemed, he went past him. Again and again he gave the ball away. And yet at the same time, he was magnificent, constantly urging Argentina forward, organising and cajoling, his bloodied visage emblematic of the will that carried Argentina through to the last 16 despite themselves.

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