ROdrigo de Paul had imagined it, but not like that. “We were years without playing a Copa America in our country and we had the chance to experience that,” he says. “We know the passion that Argentines feel. We knew stadiums would burst. We knew that any team that came to play would not only face us, but also 60,000 or 70,000 people who were screaming. We saw it in Brazil two years ago, it was like they were playing with an extra man. This year it was our turn, it would be even more powerful with us, but…”
But Argentina goes back to Brazil. The Copa América was set to start on June 12, 2020 at the Monumental in Buenos Aires. Instead, this Sunday starts at the Mané Garrincha in Brasília; De Paul and his Argentine teammates start the next night against Chile in Rio. A year late, the match was lost on May 20 by co-host Colombia amid political turmoil. Ten days later Argentina also gave up due to the corona crisis. The day after, the 2019 hosts came in, if not exactly willingly.
Also the winners of 2019. Argentina had been defeated by Brazil 2-0 in the semi-finals, Lionel Messi sent away in the play-off for third place, who refused to attend the medal ceremony and handed a three-game suspension because he said the competition was “set up” for their rivals, the referee “corrupted”. Still, De Paul insists Argentina has left “proud”.
There was, he says, something deeper and more important than the frustration: a new era, new hope after the 2018 World Cup, a new generation emerging under the manager, Lionel Scaloni, who is aiming for success this month. It’s one of the Udinese midfielder is at the heart of – even if, based on his measure, he calls himself “a spare tire”, a telling description that says a lot about how he sees football, a collective conscience befitting its quality.
“This process started with the [last] Copa America,” says De Paul. “With a new cycle of players, we had 14 shots on Brazil’s goal, the crossbar, the post. We then started a process that followed the same path: we beat Brazil, tied with Uruguay, tied with Germany in Dortmund, beat Mexico, drew with Chile, won in La Paz, which we hadn’t done in 20 years. We played nine or ten games without losing. With each result, we had fewer doubts, we grew. The virus has interrupted it, but I think the process is good.”
And then, unsolicited, he adds: “And for that process we have the best captain we can have. I’m not going to talk about his football level, because there’s no arguing about that. As a person and guide, Leo [Messi] is incomparable. When you have it, everything is easier.
“On a human level, I only had contact with him once: at Valencia-Barcelona. We are talking about 2014. Other than that I didn’t know him. Given everything he goes through, you have nowhere to go; set foot in an airport and there are 200 people – he could be a reserved character so he surprised me He enjoys having a measure, likes to listen to a song, enjoy trick [cards]. We do warm up games where you dribble, jump a hoop, shoot. I say, ‘Lion; I’ll take you.’ He likes that. That makes him human. You can see him as existing in another dimension, but he is a person.”
But can you win? DePaul laughs. “No, it’s impossible. And I’d tell you if I did, huh. You can try to delay him, try everything, but it’s impossible.”
De Paul has won them over, a fixture since Scaloni took charge. Listening to him analyze his game is to see why, the depth and insight striking. “Scaloni understands my displeasure [physical coverage] and the tactical understanding that Italy teaches us,” says De Paul. “With that we can cover Leo Paredes and help Messi. I have the displeasure to press the fullback or cover. How would I explain my role? I’m kind of a spare tire. Often important players rest on me.”
It is a rather unflattering (self-) description for, among others, the Udinese captain the outstanding footballers in Serie A, with nine goals and nine assists this season. “But I have no problem saying it that way,” he emphasizes. “And all I have to do to make the Argentina shirt, I’ll do. Everything comes in its own time: there is a moment to get into the penalty area and score, to break lines, to help Leo be fresh to attack or hold on for Paredes. You complete them.
“People talk about goals and assists, but I was recently looking for stats on ball recovery. I’m almost tripling the first year: it was 150, it’s over 400 now. What I didn’t have then, I have now So now you’re thinking, “Okay, now what? 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 passing passes more than scoring and there are times to throw yourself into tackles. I don’t have any of those. problem with that, and I don’t want to be on the front pages either.”
That makes De Paul an attractive proposition. Atletico Madrid are interested. The Premier League has called and will do so again. A quickly deleted tweet last fall reacted with fingers crossed to reports of a move to Leeds. He wasn’t going anywhere then; it seems likely that he will, his suitors even more important and Udinese alert 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’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 anticipation. Argentina has come second twice, and also second in the World Cup, but it was not enough, Messi portrayed as a failure. “For me they are heroes,” says De Paul. “I understand that people in Argentina need a trophy, a victory. Because they ask the football team what is not given in other areas: government, work, insecurity. Because they have no one to demand it from, no one to to offload, they turn to football.
“It’s about arriving on the first day and leaving on the last. In a final, the ball hits the post. It’s one centimeter. Football is moments. You cannot base a judgment on a missed penalty.”
Now Argentina is trying again, even if not the way they wanted it to, a tournament that is in crisis and for which there is not the usual enthusiasm. “We are at a time in life when no one has taught us how to live and we have to be very careful every step of the way,” says De Paul. “Fans bring football to life and I want them back soon, with all my heart. They make it as beautiful as players. But now it’s up to us to bring that happiness into our home.”