BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — At the Copa America in 2011, Argentina's Javier Mascherano handed the captain's armband to Lionel Messi after being sent off late in regulation time in the quarterfinal against Uruguay. Argentina, the host, was ousted in a penalty shootout.
Since then Messi has held on to Argentina's captaincy, but Mascherano remains the inspirational voice in the locker room.
Known as jefecito, or little boss, the 5-foot-6 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. "These opportunities come only so often and you can't let them go by."
New coach Alejandro Sabella made Messi the permanent captain and Mascherano, Messi's Barcelona teammate, took a step back without a fuss — just as he does on the field.
A hard-tackling ball winner, Mascherano stays behind when Messi and Argentina's other attacking players surge forward.
His diligent work to recover possession helped foil Belgium's attack failed 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."
Neymar denies early return: Neymar and the Brazilian confederation denied media reports that the striker could get special treatment on his fractured vertebra to try to play in the final if the tournament hosts make it that far.
Neymar, 22, and the confederation released statements saying they would not try anything that could risk the player's health or career.
Brazilian media sources quoted doctors from the Brazilian club Santos, Neymar's former team, as saying there was a chance the striker could return Sunday with alternative treatments and painkiller injections.
The Barcelona star was kneed in the back late in Brazil's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Colombia. Also, FIFA said it would not take action against Camilo Zuniga, the Colombian whose tackle injured Neymar.
Top official arrested: A senior executive with the official World Cup corporate hospitality provider was arrested as part of a Brazilian police investigation into illegal ticket sales. Ray Whelan, a director of MATCH Services, was arrested at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, the hotel used by senior FIFA officials including president Sepp Blatter.