Nobody messes with Lionel Messi – and Rodrigo De Paul will be on duty to make sure that is never so true as in tomorrow’s World Cup final. Such is his devotion to his role looking out for the best footballer on the planet that a viral Grand Theft Auto parody has been made of the Atletico Madrid taking care of anything that gets in Messi’s path – from a pugnacious wrongdoer to a lamppost.
Even after the final whistle had blown on Argentina’s game against Honduras in September, De Paul stepped in when one official from the opposition got too “handsy” as players clustered around the global icon demanding a selfie.
“When he becomes your captain, you’d go to war for him,” De Paul famously said afterwards.
Then on the eve of the tournament, he added: “I care a lot about Leo, and I know he cares a lot about me. Off the pitch we are close because we have fun, we are friends. And I have a good time with my friends.”
The theory is that to get to Messi you have to keep a lock on De Paul – a tactic the French will look at in the final. Unfortunately, the man is incredibly difficult to keep up with – his 32.4 miles in the group stages nearly doubling Messi’s input of just 16.7 miles.
“A lot of the time, the analysis that I do while I’m playing leads me to try to make him run less,” said De Paul. “To make less wear and tear and to have more space to play with – these are things that cross my mind during the match.
“So the dialogue with him is constant. We understand each other with a look.”
And if De Paul continues to offer this level of protection, who is to say this is going to be Messi’s final World Cup after all?