De Paul: I’d go to war for Messi if he asked me to
Rodrigo de Paul is one of the new crop of Argentina internationals
Made the starting line-up at the 2019 Copa America
Midfielder talks about his early years, the national team and upcoming qualifiers
It is hard to believe that Rodrigo de Paul, the tireless midfielder known for his surging runs with Udinese and Argentina, was not always such a selfless, industrious player.
"It's true, I grew up thinking that football was about others getting the ball to me. Over time I understood that this is just a very small part of the game, and I changed," he admits with a laugh on a Zoom call with FIFA.com.
And those changes were for the better. De Paul, now 26, has never lost the vision that made him such a good playmaker at the outset of his career, but these days he compliments it with a level of dynamism and commitment that are highly regarded.
In fact, he has racked up more assists (42) than goals (34) since debuting with Argentina’s Racing Club in 2012 at the age of 18.
He was first called up to the Albiceleste in October 2018 as part of the rebuilding process being undertaken by then interim coach Lionel Scaloni. After Scaloni was given the job on a permanent basis, De Paul became a key member of the team during the 2019 Copa America, where he was among the regular starters.
The player talked about all this and more with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: How did football come into your life? Rodrigo De Paul: It started as fun, although in all my memories and old photos, I’m wearing football gear and have a ball with me, whether at home, or at Club Deportivo Belgrano, my second home. Nothing else interested me, and in any case, there wasn’t enough money for a Sega console or PlayStation.
Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)
Argentina v Mexico - International Friendly
MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 20: Rodrigo de Paul of Argentina fights for the ball with JesÃºs DueÃ±as of Mexico during a friendly match between Argentina and Mexico at Malvinas Argentinas Stadium on November 20, 2018 in Mendoza, Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)
Rodrigo De Paul of Argentina runs for the ball
PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL - JUNE 23: Rodrigo De Paul of Argentina runs for the ball during the Copa America Brazil 2019 group B match between Qatar and Argentina at Arena do Gremio on June 23, 2019 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
How did you end up at Racing, your first club? It wasn't something planned. I didn't say: 'I want to be out on the pitch playing 11-a-side. The guy who took me is still my best friend. We used to play kids five-a-side and he wanted to try out for them, so I went along with him. They asked me what position I played so I told them I was a No10, which is how I started out as a playmaker.
So is it true what a former youth coach of yours said, that you never went chasing down balls? Yes! With my neighbourhood club, things came naturally to me. I didn’t practise moves, but I could easily elude opponents, so I grew up thinking that’s all there was to football (laughs).
When and how did the change happen? If I had to pick out a moment, it’d be my grandfather's death. We relied on him a lot as a family – he used to take me to training, for example... I was 14 when he got ill and died, and it shook me to the core. That’s when I decided to take football seriously, not only because it was something I was capable of doing, but also to help the family. The rest of it was accumulating experience while dealing with setbacks and all that. The Copa America was when I proved that all the effort had been worth it.
Speaking of the national team, what's your earliest memory of the World Cup? The 1998 edition! It seems unbelievable because I was only four years old, but I wanted to play like my two brothers. At the local club there was no team for my age group, so I played with a side two categories higher, and they stuck me in goal. That's when they started calling me Lechuga [the nickname of then Argentina goalkeeper Carlos Roa]. I was even given a replica of the purple jersey he used to wear at the time.
As a fan, how has your experience of the World Cups been? It’s changed as I’ve got older. I remember getting up early to watch the games in 2002 and the bitter feeling after the Sweden game. When Germany knocked us out in 2006, I was at school. The most recent ones I suffered with friends, who are all into football. Russia 2018 was a bit harder to take as I had friends in the squad like [Nicolas] Otamendi and [Paulo] Dybala.
There was some talk about you even making the squad for Russia. Did you get excited about the prospect? No. When you get to this level, you know that, with very few exceptions, it's rare to be called up for a tournament if you’ve not been involved in qualifying. And I hadn’t even made my national team debut at that point. So I didn't want to get excited. I’d already been mentioned for a possible place in the squad for the  Olympics, and when it didn't happen, it hurt a lot.
How did you find out about your first call-up in September 2018? The sporting director of Udinese, who knew Walter Samuel from his Roma days, told me he was going to call me. I thought he was going to tell me that they were monitoring me, but when he confirmed I was in the squad, it was very emotional. Even I didn’t realise the magnitude of what had happened until I was on the pitch listening to the national anthem. That's when it really hit me.
You quickly became one of the faces of the next-generation Argentina team, on and off the pitch. I don’t know if I’d call us the new team. For me, we’re part of the team in this moment in time. And after the impact of being called up and playing, of fulfilling a dream, what you feel is a sense of responsibility. It's no joke representing 45 million Argentinians. Luckily, we did well at the Copa America, even if we didn’t win the title. Yes we lost in the semi-finals to Brazil, but the fans recognised what we did all the same.
Is it difficult to have to listen to some people question Scaloni for his lack of experience? He may lack experience as a head coach, but he has 30 years’ experience of the dressing room. He understands how groups work, knows his trade, came up through the national youth teams, played at a World Cup... Like Samuel, [Roberto] Ayala and [Pablo] Aimar, they know the FA’s headquarters better than we do! I don't know how many people would have had the determination to implement the changes he made or to call up players not among the top teams in world football.
The team seemed to click as a group at the Copa America. Would you agree? The team that was selected there is the best group I've ever been part of. It started to come together with the coaching staff and began incorporating more and more things: players, concepts, moments... The key thing is that everyone knows what they’re expected to do, nobody is trying to hog the headlines. The only untouchable one is Leo. The rest of us contribute by doing whatever is asked of us.
Is it true you're the biggest joker in the group? That's what they say, but sometimes I’ll just throw an idea out and some others will quickly run with it... Tucu Pereyra, Leo Paredes... Even Messi himself will join in – I'm not the only one (laughs).
Talking of Messi, he has spoken highly of you. How does that feel? You look up to him obviously, but when you start sharing things with him, he is so transparent that, instead of telling him what you think of him, you feel more like asking him about his little kids or of reminding him of the time he took you out with his studs up in a Valencia-Barcelona game (laughs). When he becomes your captain, you’d go to war for him if he asked you to.
Do you think the pandemic disrupted the momentum you would have been carrying into the qualifiers? Absolutely. The Brazil game ended one run, but then we played seven games without being beaten. While for many in the squad, this will be the first time playing World Cup qualifiers, we’ve had plenty of discussions about it and we’re well aware of the magnitude of what we’re heading into. Hopefully, we can start in October and get the first game behind us.
Goal or assist? "Those ten seconds after you find the back of the net generate immense joy, but if I had to choose, I’d say assists. They’re more gratifying."
Fatherhood. "Francesca is almost two years old now and has changed my life. It’s something huge and makes you grow as a person and as a player too."
Tattoos. "A lot of them have a specific meaning: the names of my daughter, wife and mother, the dates of my grandfather, my first game with Argentina, me as a boy... I think I'm going to stop, unless I become world champion, in which case I’ll get a tattoo of the World Cup on my chest!"