The question got straight to the point -- and, though it appeared innocuous enough, the point was a sharp one.
"Have you learned any Catalan yet?"
Except that had he done so, the answer might even have been: No, we won't. Patience is not a virtue with which his inquisitors are blessed; it is not a virtue with which football fans are naturally blessed. And that's exactly the kind of question he'll be forced to field more often than he would like. Rarely are judgments made quicker than at Madrid and Barcelona; nowhere are conclusions drawn, debates sparked and stoked, quicker than in the Spanish sports media.
However irrelevant it is -- after all,
And there are doubts that are made all the greater by the fact that they already existed even before the Argentine had made an appearance for Barça. Playing for the club deepened them. When Mascherano was asked the question, he had played just 56 minutes: the first half against Herculés and 11 minutes against Panathinaikos.
His debut was a 2-0 home defeat against a newly promoted team. That's big news in Barcelona: It had not lost at home in 16 months and hadn't been beaten by a newly promoted team at home in almost a decade. Since coach
Against Herculés, things didn't go Mascherano's way. Barcelona dominated possession, boasting almost 80 percent, but was unusually slow in its circulation of the ball. Some pointed to the absence of
Mascherano had also given away a couple of free kicks -- one of them led to Herculés' opening goal. And, in truth, he had been fortunate to stay on the pitch. Having collected one yellow, he might have got another when he bundled
Some thought he should not have started at all; it was too soon. Guardiola had already said
On the face of it, they had a point. Barcelona sold
Many fans thought not. Touré is, they said, a better player. And $5 million is pretty much nothing. With the emergence of
But it is not that simple -- and it has much to do with timing. Timing and personalities. Timing and personalities and money. And fitness. About opportunity and missed opportunity. Selling Touré and buying Mascherano was not the original plan. Selling Touré was. Buying
Barcelona had come to see Touré as a "diesel." He was fine when he got going, but it would take him four or five games to do so. Injuries knocked him off his form for longer than most players. When he returned from the African Cup of Nations, it was April before the coaching staff felt it was really seeing the best of him.
Meanwhile, the club had grown tired of his agent's very public demands for Touré to play more minutes and his open criticism of Busquets. A homegrown product whom Guardiola worked with for Barcelona B and brought into the first team, Busquets went from playing third-division football to winning the World Cup in two years, and he's the son of one of Guardiola's former teammates and friends, goalkeeper
Contract negotiations were the backdrop to the remarks. Touré was demanding a salary that Barcelona decided it could not pay. He joined Manchester City for a reported $312,000 a week, more than that of any Barcelona player, Messi included. City's interest offered Barcelona an opportunity to save money on his salary and make money on his sale. Money that was supposed to help fund a move for Fabregas.
Fabregas would have had no such doubts surrounding him. He is Catalan, a lifelong Barcelona fan and a graduate of La Masía, the club's youth system. He has what is often called "Barça DNA." He plays with Iniesta,
Mascherano, Blind said, might struggle at Barcelona -- certainly to start with. Not because he is a bad player but because he could be the wrong kind of good player. Barça's footballing identity is so entrenched, so specific and so dogmatically followed that not just any player can fit in; you cannot expect to turn up and immediately suit the system perfectly. Mascherano will need patience while he adapts.
Learning a new language takes time. So does learning a new game.