La Liga Lowdown
Juan Román Riquelme: A Star Defined By Unfulfilled Potential
Written by Alan Feehely
Borocotó, the legendary journalist, proposed raising a statue to the inventor of dribbling in Argentina back in 1928. He said it should depict “a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb. Intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seems to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread.
“His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate. Barefoot, or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they may have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic - it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball. If this monument is raised one day, there will be many of us who will take our hat off to it, as we do in church.”
The quote is from Jonathan Wilson’s Angels with Dirty Faces and goes a long way to explaining Argentina’s relationship with the sport of football. Argentines pride something different to most. They make a virtue of beauty, grit and viveza criolla, a cunning birthed from a craft honed on the street. Argentina appreciates individualists who thrill spectators and play with a panache unmatched by peers, men who play with an edge to their game befitting a style built in the slums. Firmly in this pantheon is Juan Román Riquelme. Perhaps the most archetypal number 10 to have ever played the game, Riquelme embodies the enganche, that difficult-to-translate Spanish term that’s closest interpretation would be the hook.
The enganche is the player who links the midfield with the attack but exists separate to both, a player relieved of defensive or pressing duty but capable of dictating play like no other. It’s a position that doesn’t exist in Europe anymore. It’s the antithesis to the modern, functional pressing game that rules the continent. This rarity only deepens Riquelme’s appeal. He’s not only seen to be the perfect representative of the number 10, the enganche, but also the last one. This status, evocative of fading glory and a lost era, was evident in his work and career.
Riquelme never heeded to the party line and accepted his fate with quiet acquiescence. He played in conflict with modernity and the authorities, refusing to bow before the tyranny of sports science and the art of compromise. For this reason, Riquelme’s spell in Spain, between his two glorious spells with Boca Juniors back home, is an interesting insight into his character. His time there was brief, between 2002 and 2007, but memorable. Riquelme left a mark on LaLiga that few can match.
Born in San Fernando in 1978, Riquelme began his career with Argentinos Juniors before joining Boca aged 17. He served as part of the teams that won the 1998 and 2000 Apertura title, the 2000 and 2001 Copa Libertadores and the 2000 Intercontinental World Cup, to complement an international career where he won the 1997 under-20 World Cup and the 1998 Toulon Tournament. He left for Barcelona in 2002 for a reported fee of €11 million, departing Argentina in tumultuous circumstances. Cristian, his brother, had been kidnapped and Riquelme himself had to negotiate his release.
Riquelme arrived in Catalonia to a club with a dark cloud overhead. Joan Gaspart was president, with Barcelona finishing fourth the season before and heading into an economic crisis that necessitated the sale of Rivaldo, whose number 10 shirt Riquelme inherited. “Gaspart was the man who personally vouched for Riquelme and made sure the deal went through, but he did this despite knowing Louis van Gaal had no interest in signing him,” Barcelona-based journalist Román de Arquer told La Liga Lowdown. “The Dutchman wanted a left winger to cover Rivaldo’s loss and got the Argentine instead, so what did he decide to do? Play Riquelme on the left, which clearly wasn’t his strongest position.
“There’s an interesting anecdote, told by Riquelme himself, about when he went to see Van Gaal at his office after his presentation. Van Gaal had a pile of videos stacked on his desk, all featuring Riquelme. He told the Argentine that he was one of the best players in the world with the ball at his feet, but when he didn’t have it, his team may as well have had been playing with 10 men. In the 20-plus games Van Gaal managed in all competitions before getting fired, Riquelme started just 10.
“Gaspart resigned halfway through the season, shortly after Van Gaal was fired. The team improved slightly and Riquelme began to appear as if he had the trust of Radomir Antić, the new coach, only to return to the bench in April and not get much more game time. Overall, his time at Barcelona was a complicated stint in Riquelme’s ambition of succeeding in Europe. You could see he was a talented player, but his lack of consistency on the pitch stopped him from shining. Van Gaal didn’t help, but Riquelme’s attitude and intensity wasn’t always the best.”
Riquelme was loaned to Villarreal in 2003 to make space for Ronaldinho, who Barcelona had just signed from Paris Saint-Germain. He had three fellow Argentines at the club in Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Gonzalo Rodríguez and Juan Pablo Sorín, and they were joined by a Chilean coach in Manuel Pellegrini and the Uruguayan forward Diego Forlán. It was an altogether more hospitable environment for Riquelme, with the historically small club from the Valencian community more than happy to absorb this new South American identity - asados, Argentine barbecues, were said to be a weekly occurrence. Riquelme helped Villarreal win the Intertoto Cup in 2004 and compete in the Champions League, remarkably reaching the semi-final in 2006 only to be knocked out by Arsenal. Riquelme missed a crucial penalty in the second leg at Highbury that would have taken the game to extra-time.
“I don’t know what that Villarreal team would have been without Riquelme,” Villarreal writer SR Sidarth told La Liga Lowdown. “They had Forlán and other good players, but he and Pellegrini put that team on the map. To reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for a club like Villarreal was incredible. Riquelme influenced everything from the capacity of the stadium [La Cerámica had to be renovated when Villarreal qualified for the Champions League as it wasn’t UEFA-compliant] to their ability to go into the market and sign the likes of Giuseppe Rossi. The leap forward the club have taken in recent times all stems from that period.
“It was the era of the last number 10, that player who served as the fulcrum of your team, always coming for the ball, always looking to make that next pass and find his team-mates in a better position and always organising. Riquelme wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo, someone incredibly athletically gifted. His play was always about outthinking his opponent, seeing passes before opponents could react.”
All good things come to an end, however, and Riquelme’s divorce with Villarreal, when it eventually came, was bitter and drawn out. “I think it was Marcelino that said some situations are only meant for periods of a few years,” Sidarth continued. “Riquelme had certain demands and didn’t train in the same way as the other players. Maybe at Real Madrid you could have a situation where the talent of the team was so good that you could overcome someone not putting in 100%, but every other player in that Villarreal squad wasn’t blessed with prodigious talent. They got to where they got to because of how hard they worked, and I think having someone who didn’t train like that became too much towards the end.
“These situations also tend to go downhill when the results begin to falter, so if Riquelme was putting the team in the Champions League every season and not training that hard it would have been one thing, but results had started to decline, and the club found themselves in a situation where they had to choose between a high-profile coach and a high-profile player. They chose Pellegrini, and the messy aftermath was somewhat inevitable.”
Riquelme returned to Boca on what was initially a loan before soon becoming permanent. He was just 29 when he returned to Argentina, far from past his best. By going back and continuing to play high-quality football at home, he cemented his legacy as one of Argentine domestic football’s most cherished heroes, but also abandoned the chance to prove himself as a real success in Europe. Understanding his reasoning behind this decision is key to understanding the man himself.
“The first thing one has to understand about Riquelme is that above all he’s a man of habit,” Buenos Aires-based journalist Daniel Edwards told La Liga Lowdown. “He loves being back in Tigre with family and friends, drinking mate and cooking up barbecues. Nothing makes him happier. With that in mind, his experience in Europe, so far from those home comforts, was always going to be a challenge.
“Perhaps if he had made an instant impact at Barcelona and not bristled under Van Gaal’s instruction, it may have been a different story. In any case, he didn’t quite make the grade at Barcelona but rallied to impress at Villarreal, only for things to fall apart there because he wanted to take a long Christmas break back home, something you can’t do in Europe. It all went south and ultimately both Riquelme and Villarreal were glad to see the back of each other when he finally returned to Boca in 2007.
“The feeling was that his time in Europe had been enough and he wouldn’t try for another stint. He undoubtedly picked up a few tricks from Barcelona and Villarreal but ultimately Román was the quintessential Argentine number 10, and he always felt most at home and best able to perform in Argentina.
“He was an incredible talent when it all clicked. He could go long stretches of games without even touching the ball, barely seeming interested. Then, all of a sudden, possession would come his way and the entire match would come alive. He was just an electric presence - in terms of pure technique and ability on the ball I don’t know if there were many better than him in the past 20 years. You’d have to put him close to the likes of Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho on that front.”
Riquelme mirrored his early success at La Bombonera in his second stint there, winning the Apertura in 2008 and 2011, the Copa Argentina in 2012, the Recopa Sudamericana in 2008 and, of course, the famous Copa Libertadores title in 2007. He also played good football with the national team during this period, finishing runners-up in the 2007 Copa América and playing an instrumental role as captain of the Argentina team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“In Argentina he represents that bygone, old-school playmaker, more about having the first few yards in his head than being a proper athlete, an absolute master of the pausa,” South American football expert Tom Robinson told La Liga Lowdown. “I think the fact that he contrasted so clearly to the era of football in which he played made him stand out even more than he otherwise would have. Also, I think the fact he got so close but ultimately didn’t succeed in his hunt for silverware in Europe makes him a tragic hero in a way. Unfulfilled greatness has an allure to it.
“The fact that he came back to Boca at a relatively early stage in his career and won so much with them meant that fans were able to see the best of him at a time when most of his most talented compatriots were playing abroad. Among Boca fans, he’s right up there as the biggest icon in the history of the club, arguably more so than Diego Maradona.” Edwards agrees on this point. “Many times, the phrase has been repeated,” he added. “Maradona is Argentina’s idol, but Riquelme is Boca’s.”
“I had the fortune of seeing him play quite regularly in person and he was just next level,” continued Robinson. “He was one of those players it was impossible to get the ball off of. Even if he wasn’t in full flow, everything he did was perfectly executed. He was an absolute expert in using his body to shield the ball and win fouls. His vision, technique, passing and intelligence was sensational.”
Everyone who speaks about Riquelme does so with awe, almost as if becoming a conventional success on European soil would have been too predictable. Every creative talent to come out of Argentina since Maradona has been labelled the new Maradona, but this label never seemed to bother Riquelme. Putting aside the personal differences that saw him retire ahead of the 2010 World Cup rather than play under Maradona, Riquelme has always been his own man. Maradona also failed in Europe at first, just like Riquelme, even doing it at Barcelona too. Maradona also followed up his stint in Catalonia with a move to a lesser light, turning Napoli from an unloved, ugly sister into Italian champions. Riquelme didn’t achieve the same at Villarreal but speaking to people close to the club you could easily be fooled into believing he did. Riquelme left a mark on Spanish football. What more can you ask for than that?
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