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," él dice. “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 o 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 …”
Pero Argentina are heading back to Brazil. The Copa América was supposed to begin at the Monumental in Buenos Aires on 12 junio 2020. En lugar de, 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 Mayo. Ten days later, Argentina relinquished, también, because of the coronavirus crisis. The day after, la 2019 hosts stepped in, if not exactly willingly.
los 2019 winners, también. 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”.
Había, él dice, something deeper and more significant beyond the frustration: a new era, new hope after the 2018 Copa Mundial, 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, el cargo. 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 años. 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.”
Y luego, unprompted, él añade: “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, León [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. yo digo: ‘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.”
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, entre la 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 camisa, 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: era 150, se acabó 400 ahora. 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.”
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 ahora. 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. "Para mí, 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: Gobierno, work, insecurity. As they don’t have anyone to demand that from, anyone to unload on, they turn to football.
“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.”