Rodrigo de Paul had imagined it, but not like that. “We had gone years without playing a America Cup in our country and we were lucky enough to experience it, ”he says. “We know the passion Argentines feel. We knew the stadiums would have erupted. We knew that every team that came to play would not only be facing us but 60,000 or 70,000 people shouting. We saw it in Brazil two years ago, it was like they were playing with an extra man. This year, it was our turn, with us it was going to be even more powerful, but … “
But Argentina returns to Brazil. The Copa América was scheduled to start at the Monumental in Buenos Aires on June 12, 2020. Instead, it starts at the Mané Garrincha in Brasilia this Sunday; De Paul and his Argentinian teammates start the following night against Chile in Rio. Delayed for a year, the competition was lost by Colombian co-organizers amid political unrest on May 20. Ten days later, Argentina also gave up because of the coronavirus crisis. The next day, the 2019 hosts intervened, if not voluntarily.
The 2019 winners too. Argentina had been defeated 2-0 in the semi-final by Brazil, Lionel Messi sent off in the play-off for third place, refusing to attend the medal ceremony and pronouncing a three-match suspension for saying the competition had been “mounted” for their rivals, the “corrupt” referee. Still, De Paul insists Argentina left “proud”.
There was, he said, something deeper and more meaningful beyond the frustration: a new era, a new hope after the 2018 World Cup, a new generation emerging under manager, Lionel Scaloni, who strives for success this month. It is one of the Udinese midfielder is at the heart of – though, relying on his boyfriend, it’s called “a spare wheel”, an eloquent description that says a lot about his vision of football, a collective consciousness that goes with its quality.
“This process started with the [last] Copa América, ”said De Paul. “With a new round of players, we had 14 shots on the Brazilian goal, hit the bar, the post. We then started a process which followed the same path: we beat Brazil, drew with Uruguay, drew with Germany in Dortmund, beat Mexico, drew with Chile, won at La Paz, which we haven’t done for something like 20 years. We played nine, 10 games without losing. With each result, we had less doubts, we grew. The virus interrupted it but I think the process is good.
And then, spontaneously, he adds: “And for this process, we have the best captain we can have. I will not talk about his level as a footballer, because there is no debate. As a person and guide, Leo [Messi] is incomparable. Having it, everything is easier.
“On a human level, I only had contact with him once: in Valencia-Barcelona. We’re talking about 2014. Other than that, I didn’t know him. Considering everything he is going through – you can’t go anywhere; set foot in an airport and 200 people are there – he might be a reserved character, so he surprised me. He likes to have a boyfriend, like to listen to a song, like tower [cards]. We do warm up games where you dribble, jump a hoop, shoot. I say, ‘Leo; I’ll take you. He likes that. It humanizes him. You can see it as existing in another dimension, but it is a person.
But can you win? De Paul laughs. “No it’s impossible. And I’d tell you if I did, huh. You can try to push it back, try anything, but it’s impossible.
De Paul conquered them, a staple since taking over Scaloni. Listening to him analyze his game is to see why, the striking depth and insight. “Scaloni understands my deployment [physical coverage] and the tactical understanding that Italy teaches, ”says De Paul. “With that we can cover Leo Paredes and help Messi. I have the deployment to press on full back or cover. How do I explain my role? I’m like a spare tire. Often times the important players rely on me.
This is a rather unflattering (self) description for the captain of the Udinese, among the Outstanding footballers in Serie A, offering nine goals and nine assists this season. “But I have no problem saying it like that,” he insists. “And all I have to do to wear the Argentina shirt, I will do. Everything comes in its time: there is a moment to enter the box and score, to break the lines, to help Leo be fresh to attack or to hold for Paredes. You complete them.
“People talk about goals and assists, but I was looking for statistics on ball recoveries the other day. I’m almost in the treble the first year: it was 150, it’s over 400 now. What I didn’t have then, I have now. So now you are thinking, “OK, what’s next? What is missing ?’ The day I stop playing for Argentina, it will be because someone was better, not because I didn’t work. I like to pass more than score and there are times to get into tackles. I have no problem doing this and I don’t want to be on the front page either.
This made De Paul an attractive proposition. Atlético Madrid are interested. The Premier League has called and will do it again. A quickly deleted tweet last fall responded to reports of a move to Leeds with crossed fingers. He didn’t go anywhere then; it seems likely that he will, with his even bigger suitors and Udinese attentive to the market.
“I was very sincere, very clear with whom I had to be clear,” says De Paul. “I said what I thought, what I wanted. I am 27 years old now. I won’t speak anywhere else because I respect everyone at Udinese, especially the fans who really love me.
Another Copa América, more pressure, more waiting. Argentina was a two-time finalist, as well as a World Cup finalist, but it was not enough, Messi described as a failure. “To me, they are heroes,” says De Paul. “I understand that people in Argentina need a trophy, a victory. Because people ask the football team for what is not given in other spheres: government, work, insecurity. Since they have no one to demand this from, no one to unload on, they turn to football.
“What matters is arriving on the first day and trying to leave on the last. In the final, the ball hits the post. It’s a centimeter. Football is moments. You cannot base judgments on a missed penalty.
Now Argentina is trying again, even if not as they wanted, a tournament mired in crisis for which there is no usual enthusiasm. “We are living a time in life that no one has taught us to live and we have to be very careful at every step,” says De Paul. “The fans bring football to life and I want them to come back soon, with all my heart. They make it as beautiful as the players. But it’s up to us now to bring that happiness into their homes.