Continuing in the Shine a Light series, where we take an in-depth look at careers of some players that have not been remembered in the illuminative glow that their talents deserved, we take a glimpse at the mercurial talent that was Juan Roman Riquelme.
Can anyone honestly put their hand on their heart and say that there is a better sight in football than a languid, effortless playmaker stroking passes and unleashing shots with an air of a man out for a morning stroll on a beach? Sure watching a hard-as-nails centre-back make a vigorous, last ditch, goal-saving tackle is exciting, and watching a speed merchant buzz down the wing before drilling in an inviting cross raises the heartrate, but for sheer, maximum, unadulterated cool nothing beats the relaxed number 10.
The last few years have seen an insurgence in popularity for the playmaker; the 4-2-3-1 formation has allowed a greater degree of freedom for such players. Now we see stars like Mesut Özil, James Rodriguez and David Silva strutting their stuff on a weekly basis. However, it was a very different footballing landscape at the turn of the decade. Midfields were often so congested, they resembled rush hour traffic, which makes the players who were talented enough to make a life for themselves, in the playmaking role, all the more impressive. Zinedine Zidane was of course the poster boy for the position, at the time, but one man who was not too far behind the talismanic Frenchman, and that was the Argentinian Juan Roman Riquelme.
Riquelme’s beginning to life followed a well-worn troupe for prodigious South American talent; born into a life of poverty, he used his footballing prowess to lift both himself and his family from the “Barrios” and into a better standard of living. Making a name for himself as a player of immeasurable potential, Riquelme made his debut for giants Boca Juniors in 1996, scoring his first goal a couple of weeks later against city rivals Huracán.
In 1998 the hugely successful manager Carlos Bianchi entered La Bombonera (translated into English as the Chocolate Box), carrying an impressive CV from his time at Vélez Sarsfield, and reinvigorated a club that had become a little stagnant. Boca, in the two years prior, had become mired in the circus that was Diego Maradona. Incidents including, but not limited to; an attempted coup with the intention of installing himself as manager, recruiting famed drugs cheat Ben Johnson as a fitness coach, as well as numerous infringements related to his own battle with narcotics. It was difficult for a young Riquelme to fully grow and develop in the shadow of one of the game’s giants.
With Maradona gone and an instructive hand of Carlos Bianchi resting on his shoulder Riquelme thrived. Between 1998 and his departure in 2002, Boca Juniors, with Juan Roman operating as the team’s cerebral centre, won a staggering number of trophies; a Clausura title and two Apertura titles were impressive, yet it was the back-to-back Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) triumphs in 2000 and 2001 that really stand out. It is important to state at this point just how big a club Boca Juniors were, and indeed still are. There is an old saying in Argentina, that “half the country supports Boca”. So for a club of that stature to not feature in the final of continent’s top tournament since 1979 and not being able to call themselves champions since 1978, was a real source of ire for the endless hordes of fans, clad in the iconic blue and yellow replica tops. The fact that eternal rivals River Plate had won the title twice in that time only added fuel to the flames.
The first title won in 2000 against a spirited Palmeiras outfit demonstrated the vast improvement in the side, but it was the eventual win over a Real Madrid side containing Figo, Raul et al in the Intercontinental Cup that was the ideal gauge of talent.
In the 2000 Libertadores, Riquelme was good, the following year he was sensational; winning not just the man of the match award in a tense win over Club America (that eventually required penalties) but the overall player of the tournament award. In a world that was becoming increasingly dominated by European football leagues, and the Champions League in particular, Boca Juniors were a welcome departure from the homogenous success enjoyed by clubs across the Atlantic.
Riquelme was the fulcrum of that side, not just the best player but also its leader. His shy, almost introverted personality meant that he led by example, rather than the shouting and gesticulating that are often associated with leaders. Such remarkable displays were always going to catch the eye of one of the planet’s Superclubs and so, in 2002 he made the trip half way around the world to make Barcelona his club and the Nou Camp his home.
Life at arguably the planet’s biggest club was far from the walk in the park that many had assumed. Riquelme had swapped an environment where he was the absolute epicentre of the club to being merely a peripheral figure seeing far less action than his talents were worth. It did not help that the manager at the time was none other than the Iron Tulip, Louis van Gaal. The domineering Dutchman has always found it difficult to get the best from enigmatic South American stars; he struggled monumentally with some of Barcelona’s Brazilians (there were numerous arguments and infringements involving world player of the year Rivaldo). It was an affliction that endured to the end of his managerial career where he was unable to strike up any sort of relationship with Angel Di Maria whilst the pair were at Manchester United. Juan Roman Riquelme was simply another notch on a rather regrettable list. It is unfair, however, to moor all of the blame at the Dutchman’s feet. At Boca the team was designed in a way that extracted every ounce of Riquelme’s talent, at Barca such freedom would not be forth coming, something Riquelme was reticent to accept. The relationship between the pair reached its nadir when Van Gaal, giving the playmaker a tiny replica top for his new-born son, said “he’ll probably get to wear it more than you wear yours.” Unsurprisingly a change of scenery was not too distant on the horizon.
In a bid to rediscover his fortune Riquelme opted to join the ‘Yellow Submarine’, Villarreal. If his time in Castellon did anything it was to quantify the old adage that, ‘a change is as good as a rest’. Playing in that magnificent all-yellow strip, Riquelme went on to cultivate a reputation in Europe that was almost as impressive as the one grown in South America. With a team that was more than happy to make the Argentine its centre, Riquelme flourished. Surrounded by talent such as Juan Pablo Sorín, Marcos Senna and Diego Forlán the club reach such exalted heights that had never been matched before in the club’s history.
2006 proved to be the watershed year in Riquelme’s career. It was a year where his genius was visible for all, yet sadly proved to be insufficient to turn wonder into trophies. First, he was left aghast to see his penalty saved by Arsenal’s mad goalkeeper Jens Lehman in the Champions League semi-final. Villarreal were sub sequentially eliminated and denied the opportunity to face compatriots Barcelona in a Parisian final. It was a poor reward after topping a group containing both Manchester United and Benfica and then eliminating a spirited Rangers side and a powerful Internazionale outfit. Manager Manuel Pellegrini designed this side to be as compact and resolute as possible, and as such games were often tense affairs. This forced the onus to create upon Riquelme’s shoulders and more often than not he delivered the little moments of brilliance that turn games on their head.
After the disappointment of his domestic season Riquelme looked to the World Cup, in Germany, and identified it as the means of redemption. Gaffer José Pékerman decided to repeat his 1997 FIFA under-20 thinking and built his side around the enigmatic Riquelme, in the hopes the pair could once again win the ultimate prize.
With Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Mascherano providing solidity at the base of midfield and Javier Saviola and Hernan Crespo making intelligent runs upfront, it combined to make a really attractive side. Finishing top of the so-called ‘group of death’, one that contained Holland, Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro, demonstrated the credentials of one of the tournament’s real contenders. The second round saw the elimination of Mexico in an extremely cagey affair. The difference only made in extra time after a Maxi Rodriguez volley, a goal that is still my favour ever at a World Cup. The quarter final against hosts Germany, under the tutelage of both Jürgen Klinsmann and Jogi Lowe, was always going to be a challenge. Roberto Ayala headed Argentina into the lead, from a Riquelme corner, and all seemed to be well. However, Pékerman, in an attempt to shut up shop, withdrew his talisman. Instead of calcifying his side, it snatched the impetuous from his boys and handed it to the Germans. Miroslav Klose’s leveller in the 80th minute seemed inevitable. Although the Argentines fought to keep themselves in the competition. Neither the minutes of regulation time, nor an additional thirty minutes of extra time could produce a winner. Penalties were required and you can guess how that ended. The Germans did what Germans do, and held their nerve, winning the shootout. The elimination sparked ugly scenes as a number of Argentinian players scrapped with officials.
Despite earning a hero’s reputation at Villarreal, remaining at the El Madrigal became an impossibility. Riquelme’s abrasive personality had once again made moving inevitable. A decision to loan him to his old club Boca Juniors was seen as the best avenue for all concerned.
Now is perhaps the best time to say just how beloved Riquelme is at Boca. He is seen in the same light as Johan Cruyff at Ajax, Steven Gerrard at Liverpool or Paulo Maldini at AC Milan. He is beloved, worshipped even. But even the most beguiled of fans would have struggled to believe how seismic his return would be.
Riquelme guided Boca to yet another Copa Libertadores, scoring in every single round. Eight goals in total, including three in against Grêmio in the two legged final. Unsurprisingly he was yet again named the tournament’s best player.
Following the conclusion to the Libertadores, Riquelme was fortunate enough to be named as one of the overaged players for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Alongside such sublime talents as Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ezequiel Lavezzi, Argentina landed the goal medal. Beating a resilient Nigeria side in the final. It was to be Riquelme’s only senior triumph for the national side.
Two more Clausura titles followed despite a visible, yet slow, deterioration in the playmaker’s physique. On 25th January 2015 he announced his retirement.
Riquelme’s deficiencies, from both a mental and physical stand point, kept him from entering the game’s pinnacle. Its elite echelon. However, these idiosyncratic quirks are also what have made him such a cult figure and an endearing presence on the international stage. The best way to surmise just how gifted the languid stroller was is to say he won Argentina’s player of the year four times – level with Diego Maradona. Only Lionel Messi has been bequeathed the honour on more occasions.
Gifted, enigmatic, impetuous, argumentative but above all cool. Juan Roman Riquelme.