A no-nonsense midfielder, who runs a lot, and has plenty of goals at the club level under his name is the beating heart of this Argentina side, which qualified for the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022. Rodrigo De Paul is a lot, but he is widely known as Leo Messi’s unofficial bodyguard on the pitch, ensuring that nothing happens to the Argentina star whenever he finds difficult opposition.
He was widely considered to be one of Argentina’s brightest stars, as he was up and coming midfielder at Racing Club de Avellaneda, the club he joined when he was only eight years old and left when he was 20, moving to pastures anew, in Europe, at Valencia.
Soon, it emerged that De Paul was not an attacking midfielder, rather than a box-to-box one, having no issues with physical contact and always trying to outmuscle the opponents. He soon became a provider and a facilitator rather than a goal scoring machine and that was ok with him when he moved to Udinese, in the North of Italy in 2016.
He always knew he had to be a football player, in part because his family had a modest life in Argentina, but also for his grandfather, a big part of De Paul’s life, until he died when the player was only 14 years old.
“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,” said De Paul according to FIFA.com.
Having the proper motivation definitely helped De Paul mature as a football player, with his excellent games at Udinese, where he settled in immediately, making him an interesting proposition for the Argentina national team.
He was not considered for the national team for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, when Argentina was eliminated by France in the Round of 16, but a new approach to the team was needed and a rebuild essentially followed. De Paul became a key part of that rebuild, making his debut in September 2018, only months after Argentina were eliminated at Russia 2018.
“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. It was very emotional,” said De Paul.
He quickly became good friends with many players in the squad, but built an amazing relationship with Leo Messi, Argentina’s No.10 and talisman, which De Paul stops short of calling a God.
“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. When he becomes your captain, you’d go to war for him if he asked you to,” said the Argentina player.
Indeed, that Messi-De Paul dynamic worked wonders. They even have their ritual on any day, with both coming down from their rooms first, drinking their mate – a popular tea in Argentina – and the other players follow in quick succession.
This cohesion, this relationship between the players, was the key for Argentina’s excellent performances in the past few years. As Messi was criticised and left to dry after the early exit of the team at Russia 2018, he pondered whether he should play or not for the national team.
With De Paul on his side, Messi flourished and came a player energised to his last edition of the FIFA World Cup in his career, after securing his first international trophy with Argentina in 2021, the Copa America.
“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,” said De Paul.
Indeed, Messi was the one taking all the headlines even after the win in the Round of 16 against Australia, 2-0, where Leo scored his first-ever goal in the knockout phase of the FIFA World Cup.
And De Paul was right beside him, like a true bodyguard, celebrating the goal like no one else. If Argentina will go through to the semi-finals, then it will be even better for De Paul. It means that he fulfilled his role once again.