Argentina’s Rodrigo de Paul: ‘Messi surprised me. He enjoys a song, cards’

Rodrigo de Paul had imagined it, but not like this. “We had gone years without playing a Copa América in our country and we had the chance to live that,” he says. “We know the passion Argentinians feel. We knew stadiums would have been bursting. We knew that every team that came to play wouldn’t just be facing us but 60,000 or 70,000 people shouting. We saw it in Brazil two years ago it was like they played with an extra man. This year was our turn, with us it was going to be even more powerful, but …”

But Argentina are heading back to Brazil. The Copa América was supposed to begin at the Monumental in Buenos Aires on 12 June 2020. Instead, it begins at the Mané Garrincha in Brasília this Sunday; De Paul and his Argentina teammates start the following night against Chile in Rio. Delayed a year, the competition was lost by co-hosts Colombia amid political unrest on 20 May. Ten days later, Argentina relinquished, too, because of the coronavirus crisis. The day after, the 2019 hosts stepped in, if not exactly willingly.

The 2019 winners, too. Argentina had been beaten 2-0 in the semi-final by Brazil, Lionel Messi sent off in the third-place play-off, refusing to attend the medals ceremony and handed a three-match ban for saying the competition had been “set up” for their rivals, the refereeing “corrupt”. Yet De Paul insists that Argentina left “proud”.

There was, he says, something deeper and more significant beyond the frustration: a new era, new hope after the 2018 World Cup, a new generation emerging under the manager, Lionel Scaloni, which aspires to success this month. It is one the Udinese midfielder stands at the heart of – even if, drawing on his mate, he calls himself “a spare tyre”, a telling description that says much about how he sees football, a collective conscience to go with his quality.

“This process started with the [last] Copa América,” De Paul says. “With a new cycle of players, we had 14 shots on Brazil’s goal, hit the bar, the post. We started a process then that has followed the same path: we beat Brazil, drew with Uruguay, drew with Germany in Dortmund, beat Mexico, drew with Chile, won in La Paz which we hadn’t done for something like 20 years. We went nine, 10 games without losing. With every result we had fewer doubts, we grew. The virus interrupted it but I think the process is good.”

Rodrigo de Paul on the ball for Argentina
Rodrigo de Paul says: ‘Anything I have to do to wear the Argentina shirt, I’ll do.’ Photograph: Juan Mabromata/EPA

And then, unprompted, he adds: “And for that process, we have the best captain we could have. I’m not going to talk about his footballing level, because that’s beyond debate. As a person and a guide, Leo [Messi] is incomparable. Having him, everything is easier.

“On a human level, I only had contact with him once: at Valencia-Barcelona. We’re talking 2014. Apart from that I didn’t know him. Given everything he lives through – you can’t go anywhere; set foot in an airport and 200 people are there – he could be a reserved character, so he surprised me. He enjoys having a mate, enjoys listening to a song, enjoys truco [cards]. We do warmup games where you dribble, jump a hoop, shoot. I say: ‘Leo; I’ll take you on.’ He loves that. That humanises him. You can see him as existing in another dimension but he’s a person.”

But can you win? De Paul laughs. “No, it’s impossible. And I would tell you if I did, eh. You can try to put him off, try anything, but it’s impossible.”

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A test of how far this new Argentinian generation has travelled, whether it can get beyond those barriers, comes in the first game. Argentina face Chile, the country that beat them in the final two years running – and on penalties. Chile are ready, insists Guillermo Maripán, the Monaco centre-back who was the top-scoring central defender in Europe this season but who knows his job will be focused more on stopping Lionel Messi. And, then, in the very next game, stopping Luis Suárez. 

 “The best thing you can do is call a teammate to help you,” he says. “Or better still, two teammates. Between the two or three of you, you try to get the ball off of him, but it’s still very difficult against Messi. 

“Suárez is a difficult to mark because of the way he moves, the physicality, bumping into defenders and with the intelligence that he has. He never stops for a second: he spends the entire match on the move, changing position, jumping, bumping into you so he’s the type of striker that is very difficult to deal with. He’s a little bit more aggressive and although ultimately you can handle it, it’s more work, you can’t switch off. That’s him, that’s what he’s like. But he’s a great professional and he’s had a fantastic career.” 

Get through those and Brazil could await. But Maripán has reason to be confident: this after all is the man who controlled Kylian Mbappé when Monaco won at Paris Saint-Germain this season. So when he’s asked who the tournament’s favourites are, the reply is swift: “For me it’s Chile,” he says.

Photograph: Agustín Marcarian/X03747

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De Paul has won them over, a fixture since Scaloni took charge. Listening to him analyse his game is to see why, the depth and insight striking. “Scaloni understands my despliegue [physical coverage] and the tactical understanding Italy teaches,” De Paul says. “With that, we can cover Leo Paredes and help Messi. I have the despliegue to press the full-back or cover. How would I explain my role? I’m a like a spare tyre. Often important players rest on me.”

It’s a pretty unflattering (self-)description for the Udinese captain, among the outstanding footballers in Serie A, providing nine goals and nine assists this season. “But I have no problem putting it like that,” he insists. “And anything I have to do to wear the Argentina shirt, I’ll do. Everything comes in its own time: there’s a moment to get into the box and score, to break lines, to help Leo be fresh to attack or hold for Paredes. You complement them.

“People talk about goals and assists but I was looking for stats on ball recoveries the other day. I’m on almost treble the first year: it was 150, it’s over 400 now. What I didn’t have then, now I do. So now you think: ‘OK, what’s next? What’s missing?’ The day I stop playing for Argentina, it will be because someone was better, not because I didn’t work. I like giving passes more than scoring and there are moments to throw yourself into tackles. I don’t have a problem doing that, nor do I want to be on the front pages.”

Rodrigo de Paul in action for Udinese against Internazionale last month
Rodrigo de Paul in action for Udinese against Internazionale last month. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

That has made De Paul an attractive proposition. Atlético Madrid are interested. The Premier League has called and will again. A swiftly deleted tweet last autumn replied to reports of a move to Leeds with a fingers crossed. He went nowhere then; it seems likely he will, his suitors even more significant and Udinese alert to the market.

“I was very sincere, very clear with whom I had to be clear,” De Paul says. “I said what I thought, what I want. I’m 27 now. I’m not going to speak anywhere else because I respect everyone at Udinese, especially the fans who really love me.”

Another Copa América, more pressure, more expectation. Argentina have twice been runners-up, World Cup runners-up too, but it was not enough, Messi portrayed as a failure. “For me, they’re heroes,” De Paul says. “I understand that people in Argentina need a trophy, a victory. Because people ask of the football team what isn’t given in other spheres: government, work, insecurity. As they don’t have anyone to demand that from, anyone to unload on, they turn to football.

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“What matters is to arrive on the first day and try to leave the last. In a final, the ball hits the post. It’s a centimetre. Football is moments. You can’t base judgments on a missed penalty.”

Now Argentina try again, even if it’s not the way they wanted it, a tournament mired in crisis for which there is not the usual enthusiasm. “We’re in a moment in life that no one taught us how to live through and we have to be very careful at every step,” De Paul says. “Fans bring life to football and I want them back soon, with all my heart. They make it just as beautiful as players do. But it’s up to us now to take that happiness into their homes.”

source: theguardian.com