Why you should never step up against Lionel Messi – or tell Juan Roman Riquelme to tie his shoes

Ryan Baldi
A composite image of Juan Roman Riquelme, Jimmy Conrad and Lionel Messi
Argentina taught the United States a lesson at the 2007 Copa America

Jimmy Conrad has the ‘nice calling card’ of tackling Lionel Messi in a Copa America. He never told Juan Roman Riquelme to tie his laces again though.


“We had guys with M16 assault rifles outside the doors of our hotel rooms,” begins Jimmy Conrad, recalling the tight security that accompanied the United States men’s national team at the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela.

“Then you walk out and you see more guys with M16s by the elevator. And then you go downstairs in the lobby and you see about 15,000 guys with M16s. There were a lot of guys with M16s.

“Oddly, you get comfortable with it. We weren’t allowed to leave the hotel compound that we were on without some serious escorts. But they had everything we needed and we were there to do a job; it wasn’t like we were looking to sight-see anyway.”

They were there to play football, primarily. But there was a feeling among the players that their presence in Venezuela was also geared towards smoothing relations between the United States and the South American country’s communist government.

“There were tense relations that we were aware of between the two countries,” says Conrad, who earned 27 senior caps for the USMNT and was a four-time MLS Best XI selection. “At times you can feel like a pawn in the political game. It was a good opportunity through sports to create some diplomacy.

“I did have a chance to go to an event – I believe it was me, Bob [Bradley] and someone else – to meet with [president] Hugo Chavez’s brother at a community centre where he was speaking. That was part of the diplomatic effort.

“At the World Cup in 2006 we had a crazy amount of protection around us. For us to agree to participate there were going to be similar security efforts to make sure that we were comfortable. I think they overdid it a little bit.

“Once the games get started, you get your escort to the bus and when it kicks off you just want to put in a good performance.”

And for the first 45 minutes of their opening group-stage game, the USMNT did just that, holding their opponents to a 1-1 scoreline. But unfortunately for Bradley’s side, their Copa curtain-raiser pitted them against an Argentina side that included Hernan Crespo, Juan Roman Riquelme and a 20-year-old Lionel Messi.

“For the first half, I thought we were pretty good against Argentina,” Conrad says. “But when you have that much quality in your team, you get exploited.”

They might not have been so ruthlessly exploited had Conrad not poked the bear. After Eddie Johnson fired in a ninth-minute penalty to give the USMNT a shock lead, the Kansas City Wizards centre-back took umbrage with what he perceived to be a subtle slight by the Albiceleste’s star playmaker.

“Juan Roman Riquelme, the famous No.10 for Argentina, he didn’t tie his shoes for the first 20 minutes of the game,” Conrad remembers. “I was honestly insulted by it.

“I knew of Riquelme and had seen some highlights and prepared for him, but I didn’t know the aura around him at that time. When he didn’t tie his shoes, I thought, ‘Man, this isn’t a friendly. This is a proper game.’

“So after we scored, I grabbed his arm and I told him to tie his f***ing shoes. He didn’t tie them for a little bit. But then they got a free-kick. On that free-kick, he stepped up and tied his shoes, then he dropped a dime to the back post and we gave up a goal.

“I was like, ‘I probably shouldn’t have told him to tie his shoes!’ A lesson learned there – don’t tell Riquelme to do anything.”

And while Riquelme’s technical brilliance took a subtle form, the absurd talent of the young, lank-haired Messi, who was still two years shy of what would be the first of eight Ballons d’Or, was more overt.

“Sure, Messi was 20, but it’s not like it wasn’t clear that he was f***ing awesome,” Conrad says.

“More often than not, even against the world’s best players, you can anticipate what they’re trying to do. As a donkey centre-back like myself, you figure out ways to make that harder. Some of it is physical: you put a hand on their chest, an arm across their body to slow them down.

“Messi wasn’t in my area too much, but when he was he’d try to create two-v-ones with Crespo. And if I stepped up to him, he was so slippery, I couldn’t get a hand on him. It was unreal. His centre of gravity, how quickly he runs and how purposefully he runs, it is really something to behold.

“At this point, I’d already played against R9 Ronaldo, Miroslav Klose, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos. I’d never seen anything like Leo Messi. He was quick as sh*t.

“And then you’ve got Javier Zanetti, Riquelme and Crespo up top; Pablo Aimar and Carlos Tevez come off the bench. It was like a video game. You learn a lot about what world class really looks like, how a team should move and how efficient they are at moving. I always appreciated that. But being 1-1 at half-time and then getting slapped by the end of it is never a good feeling.”

The USMNT were “slapped” to the tune of a 4-1 defeat, with second-half goals from Crespo, Tevez and Aimar. A 3-1 loss to a talented Paraguay side managed by current Inter Miami boss Tata Martino and a 1-0 defeat to Colombia brought a swift end to their Copa campaign.

With the 2024 Copa America being held in the United States, Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT squad will contest South America’s top prize on favourable terrain – and their squad has been ranked from hot to cold going into the tournament. But being an invitee to a tournament made up predominantly of South American sides brings a unique stylistic challenge.

“It was an adjustment,” Conrad says. “There’s a different style, for sure. That Argentina team in particular, they were built around a proper No.10. I don’t know if that exists any more. That was a challenge.

“And those guys don’t take shit from anybody. There are only 10 teams [in CONMEBOL, the South American federation]. They compete against each other all the time. They are very good at the dark arts of defending. They’re very good at maximising their advantages. You come back from playing in a tournament like that and you’re a little bit wiser about how to have success.”

Despite the disappointment of a group-stage exit, the 2007 Copa America provided Conrad with a personal highlight he can call upon to settle any debate or silence any doubters with an almighty one-upping: a crunching challenge on the greatest player of all time.

“I got a good tackle on him, which I’m pretty proud of,” Conrad says. “It was his first Copa America game. What I loved about it most of all was that Riquelme had done a no-look pass and I’d read it. I remember going up against Carlos Valderrama and it was the same thing – when you can read those geniuses of passing and then steal something, it’s the best.

“I’m grateful I have that because any time anyone tries to give me sh*t about anything, I can be like, ‘Did you tackle Leo Messi in a Copa America? I don’t think you did.’ It’s always a nice calling card for me.”

👉 How USMNT can beat Brazil and Argentina and win Copa America
👉 Copa America power rankings: From Bolivia to Argentina via a Neymar-less Brazil