Mascherano on Valverde, Neymar, the World Cup and playing in MLS
PARSIPPANY, New Jersey -- Javier Mascherano is wise enough to know the benefits of visiting the United States this summer. Former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique may have preferred to avoid long trips during preseason, but Mascherano is aware of the importance of spreading the Barca brand across the globe.
Plus, as the 33-year-old tells ESPN FC, there are worse ways to prepare. During their 10-day mini-tour, Barca will take on Juventus on Saturday in New Jersey, then Manchester United four days later in Washington, D.C. The tour concludes with a game vs. Real Madrid in Miami.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ESPN FC: Does it feel strange to be finishing the tour with a match against Madrid in Miami?
Mascherano: In Europe it's strange [to have two rivals play each other in preseason]. But I am Argentine, and there in the summer it's usual to have a friendly between Boca Juniors and River Plate. That happens a lot. But it's two of the biggest teams in the world, and it will be great for the fans to see it.
ESPN FC: Then two more games against Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup; it's a demanding start for new coach Ernesto Valverde.
Mascherano: It's always demanding at Barcelona, regardless of three games against Madrid to start the season. But it's important to play in the Super Cup as it means you've won something the season before. After that, [the demands] don't have a lot to do with the rival, but the demands which come from inside the club. It's a really, really demanding club, which is always obliged to be fighting for every title. The new coach knows that; he has been here as a player.
ESPN FC: How's the first week with Valverde been? Can you notice the difference between him and Luis Enrique?
Mascherano: It's been a good first week. We're training well; hard. Now we are starting to have a few more training games, mixing things up a little bit with the idea of kicking on with the games that we have got coming up here. Luis Enrique and [Valverde] both have their own ways of training. Some things always change with a new coach, above all in the method of training. But no, it's not really too different. There's always that same line which is followed which characterises the club's methods, but there are some changes.
ESPN FC: What sort of changes can we expect in Valverde's Barca?
Mascherano: The style will continue to be the same with Ernesto. Barcelona is really radicalised in that regards, with how football is played. It is important to be the protagonists [with the ball] and to play attacking football. So the style stays the same in that regard. After that, each manager that comes will always add their own touch to their own taste, which will be to do with the systems they could use, the players they can use inside those systems; that's what the manager will decide now.
ESPN FC: Barca missed out on La Liga and the Champions League last season. Do the players feel they have a point to prove this year?
Mascherano: We're obliged to improve on last season, that's more than clear. Like I said, this is a really demanding club and those demands mean we obviously have to improve on last season. Winning everything is always the target.
ESPN FC: You, Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez are all in your 30s. Are we on the cusp of a big generational change at the club?
Mascherano: Of course, as the years pass, the team has been changing. There will always be the need for replacements, changes. Last season that was done with the six signings -- younger players -- with the club looking to regenerate itself a little with those signings. But this is life. Important players are getting older, sure, but I think that the most important players on the team still have a lot to give on the pitch. A 30-year-old these days can still easily play for many more years at the top level. In the short-term, there can be absolutely no doubts about Barcelona's future. Right now we should think about the present, the very near future and not get too far ahead of ourselves. When you do that you can end up with other problems.
ESPN FC: Not looking too far ahead, but could Neymar become Barca's next leader?
Mascherano: I don't have too long left myself, so I'm not sure. I am 33; it's clear that I have very little time left at this level with Barcelona. I don't know if it will be one or two more years, but beyond that, I can't see what my future will be. In the case of Ney, obviously he is young, and I hope he's here with Barcelona for many more years. He is a really important player for the club. Because of his age, he's the future of the club, and we hope we can keep on counting on him.
ESPN FC: Has he been affected by the Paris Saint-Germain reports?
Mascherano: No, no, he's accustomed to the pressure and people talking. There's always going to be rumours and news around him.
ESPN FC: You almost left for Juventus last summer. What would you say to Neymar if he asked for advice about his future?
Mascherano: It's really difficult to give advice. Firstly, I'm not anyone to be giving advice and secondly, I see him really happy here, really happy. [Barca] are a club that have made it possible for him to perform at his best. But after that, each person has to make their own decisions.
ESPN FC: As players, what do you make of the transfer window and everything that comes with it?
Mascherano: To be honest, the transfer market has been transformed recently into something quite "fun." Everyone in recent years is waiting for Aug. 31 to see what's going to happen; it's part of what football has become, the most popular sport in the world, a big business, and we are immersed in this business. For that reason, there's so much speculation and noise.
ESPN FC: Have you seen players unsettled by that noise?
Mascherano: It can affect players depending on the player; each player is different. There are people it affects more, others less. The speculation and all the noise that surrounds a club or a player is always going to exist because football is huge. And when a sport is so big, so popular, it's always going to be required that there's always more and more news.
ESPN FC: When you took that penalty against Osasuna, I thought it was possibly because you were thinking about leaving this summer.
Mascherano: (Laughs) No, no, no. In the end, the penalty, more than anything, was due to all the requests I was getting. It could have seemed like it was the end of my time with Barcelona, but no, it's always been clear for me. The club have always made me feel like they counted on me and there was no reason to leave. I have two years left on my contract. After [this season], we will see if I would like to finish my contract or bring my time at the club to an end. At my age, it's an error to look too far ahead; you have to take it year by year.
ESPN FC: This season ends with the World Cup, which could be your last.
Mascherano: No, no, not could be; obviously it will be my last World Cup! That's really clear. But first of all, Argentina have still not qualified, and a lot of things can happen in one year. A year before a World Cup is always important, a little different to other years. But it's still almost a year until the tournament and as players, we just think about what we have to do now. It's not worth thinking about something which is going to happen in 11 months. That doesn't make much sense.
ESPN FC: But things are looking promising with Jorge Sampaoli now in charge.
Mascherano: When a new coach comes there's always renewed excitement and hope. The Sampaoli era started well with the win over Brazil, and now we have a year in which we have to guarantee our place at the World Cup, which won't be easy with the games that are left. So we're expecting a difficult year.
ESPN FC: After the World Cup, or maybe a little further down the line, could you see yourself in MLS?
Mascherano: Yes, yes, yes. The U.S. is an option because the football has improved a lot here and because it's a nice place to live. It's really clear that it would be a good option, but there are other options, too. I've spoken with some players who've had the chance to play here, and they have all had a really good experience.
ESPN FC: And then one day you seem an obvious candidate to move into coaching.
Mascherano: Let's see. I would like to remain linked to football, and when you want to continue linked with football, you don't have many options. Either you become a coach or you take some kind of sporting director route. But I would like to be a coach, more than anything because I am much more interested in what's happening on the pitch than in the offices. I am doing my badges in Argentina at the moment. I'm doing the course, which is two-and-a-bit years. I am in the second year, so just a bit more to go and then that's that.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.