Having posted the words 'Perder la paciencia es perder la batalla' (To lose patience is to lose the battle) on his Instagram account a few months ago, adhering to the memorable maxim from Mahatma Gandhi has certainly served Javier Pastore well. An integral cog in the Argentina team preparing to tackle hosts Chilein the final of the Copa America 2015, 'El Flaco's' current situation has everything to do with not losing hope, even when others’ belief in him had dwindled.
Patience is also one of the many virtues of Jorge Valdivia, a veteran of so many fitness battles, but who on Saturday could be the No10 of the first senior Chile side to win a major trophy. 'El Mago', like Pastore, is also reaping the rewards of biding his time. Indeed, prior to this competition, the pair expected to play only supporting roles to the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, only to force their way to centre stage in their respective sides’ runs to the decider.
“This is the most important match of my career,” said Pastore, a player Gerardo Martino had in mind as an ideal sidekick for Messi ever since taking over as Argentina coach. And it is El Flaco’s languid, unhurried style that perhaps best exemplifies how the approach of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ runners-up has changed since their Brazilian adventure.
During qualifying for Brazil 2014, previous coach Alejandro Sabella had invested in a fast-paced game, built on the turbo-charged talents of Messi and Angel Di Maria. He subsequently adopted a more conservative tack from the Round of 16, with neither tactical scheme having a permanent place for Pastore. Martino, in contrast, has shown a belief in Pastore not matched since Diego Maradona took the then 21-year-old to South Africa 2010 as the youngest member of his Albiceleste squad.
Up until mid-2014, Pastore had started in only four of his 13 appearances for Argentina, while since October 2014, the Paris Saint-Germain player has won a further 11 full caps – starting on nine of those occasions. “What we ask Javier to do is find a way to open up our opponents, to create the space for the killer pass,” explained Martino.
And though El Flaco has just one assist and one goal to his name at this Copa America – both coming in the semi-final thrashing of Paraguay – his uncanny ability to link the play, whether in central areas or drifting in from the right, has been instrumental in Argentina building enough momentum to get results. Pastore too has done his bit in ensuring Messi sees plenty of the ball, with La Pulga on the receiving end of 49 Pastore passes so far at the tournament, with Javier Mascherano next but some way behind on 25.
It is, of course, no coincidence that the two Barcelona superstars have received more passes than any other player at this competition, and nor is it that third place on this list – with an impressive 292 passes received – is Valdivia. El Mago is Chile’s undisputed ‘go-to guy’, dictating the tempo and making La Rojatick. “He’s a player who’s great at reading the game, he’s so good at visualising attacks,” said Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli, to the extent that Valdivia, along with Messi, tops the tournament’s assist charts with three.
“The most important thing about getting back into the national squad is being in good physical condition,” said Valdivia back in November 2014, when, recently signed by Emirati side Al Wahda, he declared himself once again available for national-team selection. Having stepped away from the scene following Brazil 2014, this third return to the Chile fold was quite different from the previous two – his comebacks in 2009 and 2013 both resulting from the lifting of heavy disciplinary bans.
Now 31 and despite being plagued by muscular niggles in early 2015, Valdivia’s perseverance enabled him to achieve the peak fitness levels required to be a part of Sampaoli’s high-intensity Chile XI. “They need to be fit enough to pressurise constantly: that's non-negotiable in this team,” he said.
His playmaker has not disappointed, showing the stamina needed to press when Chile do not have the ball, as well as remaining clear-headed enough to find opponents’ weak points when in possession. By way of an example, there was Valdivia in the 81st minute of the quarter-final versus Uruguay, showing the sharpness of mind to supply Mauricio Isla for the only goal of the game.
There were not many football followers, even in Chile, who would have predicted such a state of affairs pre-tournament, just as Pastore was often singled out as an easy target for criticism in Argentina. Yet after five games in the Copa America, and whatever happens in Saturday’s final, both have won their particular battles.