The moment that Javier Mascherano saw red, you knew the Albiceleste were in trouble. You just don't give back a man advantage without it becoming the turn in a parable - a lesson on not taking opportunities for granted.
Argentina had been given their gift when Diego Perez, the veteran Uruguay midifelder who scored his first international goal in the fifth minute, fulfilled a destiny he avoided when he only saw yellow for a second minute. That was a red card offense, though the match official, Carlos Armarilla DeMarqui, disagreed. Three minutes later, Perez put Uruguay ahead, but when the official again reached for his yellow in the 38th minute, Perez gave the hosts a paved path to the semifinals.
By that time, Gonzalo Higuain had equalized, and with Argentina controlling the tempo throughout much of the match, only some heroics from Celeste `keeper Fernando Muslera kept Sergio Batista's team from translating their control into goals.
And so stood the match in the 86th minute when Mascherano, Argentina's captain, decided to give his team's gift back. The match was still 10 minutes from the whistle that would end regulation, giving the hosts 40 minutes to find another goal. With Lionel Messi giving his typical stellar performance (when he wasn't picking himself up from errant Uruguayan tackles) and Gonzalo Higuain stressing the seems around Diego Lugano and substitute Andres Sotti, Muslera would have been hard pressed to keep a dream performance going through the second hour. Asking him to provide more than his gasp-inducing foot save on a Carlos Tevez direct kick would have been too much (even though he provided so much more).
All of which makes Mascherano's red card even more egregious, on a number of levels. The first and most obvious: It was a cheap call, the type of call that seems to happen more often when 11 is playing 10 -- when officials seem to be subconsciously looking for reasons to even the sides. Mascherano sent Luis Suarez crashing, but was it enough to justify a card? Let alone a second yellow card?
That's where the second level comes in. A player of Mascherano's experience (over 70 international appearances) and stature (see, armband) should know that some officials tend to look to balance the scales. Is it fair that this happens? No, and there's a huge part of me that wants to deny that this effect even exists. But while it's difficult to generalize to all officials - to say that officials, as a genus, will even out a sending off - it's easy to see there are a handful of zebras who let a subconscious and perverse sense of justice get the better of them.
Mascherano, of course, is no stranger to red cards. Though this is the first time he's been dismissed since his Liverpool days, the Argentine captain has been sent off five times since March 2008 (club and country), telling of the midfielder's problems with discretion. While his Saturday sending off was harsh, he should have never put himself in a position to be booked again. He should have shown better discretion.
But as with any match where you play up a man for nearly an hour, where you're seen out of a tournament your hosting by the margin of one penalty kick, there are a litany of should haves.
Argentina should have found a goal, no doubt. It's hard to complain that a harsh red card settled a match when you had an hour's man advantage to take the lead.
Perhaps Messi should have done more, though anybody with an open mind who watched the match can't possibly hold Messi to account. An exquisite ball created Gonzalo Higuain's goal. He served another perfect curler into the area only to have Higuain's second called back. He forced Muslera into numerous saves, and despite being the subject of a seemingly deliberate Uruguayan strategy to chop, block, and tackle, Messi converted the first kick of the shootout. On Saturday, Messi lived up to his billing.
The one Argentine who failed to live up to the hype was the one player Sergio Batista was loathe to include in the team. The only player to miss a penalty kick, Carlos Tevez barely seemed interested in executing his chance. Perhaps it's just an extension of Tevez's personality that he steps up and rips it, and perhaps us Tevez fans have to take the bad with the great. But against Uruguay, his spot kick was a disappointment. Five feet to Fernando Muslera's right and thigh high, the attempt was easily saved by the Uruguayan `keeper, proving the difference in the match.
And so Sergio Batista, who will undoubtedly be dismissed after such an early exit, is left to rue not holding his ground on the Tevez issue. With the public clamoring for El Apache's inclusion in the weeks before the tournament, the coach - entering his first major competition in charge of Argentina - not only gave in, but he put Tevez in his starting XI. It was a surprising but welcomed reversal, Batista electing to forget the transgressions that had originally cast Tevez out of the fold.
But Tevez never worked. Only when Tevez was pulled out of the lineup did Argentina start to click. Now, with Argentina out by the error of Tevez's laces, Batista will be tempted to second guess his forgiveness.
That's too easy of an out. In truth, Tevez's saga in the Batista era will be a mere footnote. In time, nobody will care how Argentina failed, only that they did. It's a legacy Batista may never live down, and while you can argue that the Albiceleste's been broken for some time - that the distribution of talent on the team makes forming a coherent squad an underappreciated challenge - the bottom line won't be forgiving: Squad with best player of his generation eliminated two rounds too early in tournament played on home soil.
Goodbye, Argentina. Goodbye, Sergio Batista. No excuses required.