Juan Román Riquelme: the dream comes first

Juan Román Riquelme: the dream comes first

Illustration by Matt Steven

The number 10 was an important part of Juan Román Riquelme’s life. It would be the defining number on the back of his shirt – perhaps the last number 10 the world of football would associate with the languid, classic style of mental speed ahead of physical prowess. It would also be the age when a young Román would discover that his father was a local gang member. Ten was the number that defined Riquelme; the number that made millions dream.

“Román,” his mother would call out to get JR’s attention. This was a time when another JR. was dominating newspaper columns around the world. JR Ewing, perhaps the most famous soap character of the 1980s, was on TV sets the world over. He was the star of Dallas. In many ways, he redefined what it meant to love something you can’t touch. Two decades later, Juan Román Riquelme would do the same.

Riquelme’s departure from Europe in 2007 would sever the final tie between the dream of classical football and the modern world. Modernity, travelling along the unstoppable arrow of time, would win out.

It was Argentinos Juniors who played the most pivotal role in Román’s development. It was also in La Paternal, Buenos Aires, that the first comparison to Diego Maradona would be made. In reality Riquelme was nothing like Maradona. Their styles, though both undeniably effective, were poles apart. They are different characters, different dreamers. The ‘New Maradona’ tag may have weighed heavy on the shoulders of lesser stars but for Riquelme, it meant nothing. He knew he was different.

It was at Argentinos’s famed youth academy, beautifully nicknamed “The Cradle of The Stars” that Riquelme would forge the mental aptitude and technical ingenuity to become a legend. The methods which had helped bring through the likes of Maradona, Sergio Batista and Fernando Redondo were pivotal in Román’s early development. Slight of frame, shy, and suffering from chronic fatigue at an early age, Juniors’ coaches helped nurture their promising youngster. A player they saw as the bright hope for the future would, however, have other plans in mind.

After River Plate were rebuffed by the boyhood Boca fan, a fee of US$800,000 was agreed between Argentinos and Boca for Román to make the move across Buenos Aires. His on-off love affair with Boca Juniors would last almost 20 years, and he would etch his name into the lengthy, heady list of club greats.

If there were tentative comparisons to Maradona before, by now Riquelme was the talk of La Bombonera. A new hero was born.

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Success would come instantly for the naturally-gifted Argentine, his creative play between midfield and attack guiding the club to six titles, including the Copa Libertadores crown in 2000 and 2001. Though success was tangible for the fans, what couldn’t be touched was the brilliance of Riquelme. His movement, control, finesse and passing was the stuff of wonder. His ability to create something from nothing rivalled that of Maradona. Despite being worlds apart in their playing style, Maradona and Riquelme sharing one innate skill: unpredictability.

Riquelme was moody and needed to be loved. He needed to be told that he was the creative star, the biggest cog in a free-flowing, fearless machine. He needed people around him doing the legwork. Much like the rest of his career, fatigue would be a constant battle for the attacking midfielder.

Throughout his time at La Bombonera he was different. For Riquelme it was never the scoring of goals that matter. He saw himself as the means to an end. In a league where attacking outlets were basing their success on stats – often to earn a lucrative move to Europe – Riquelme saw things differently. He wanted to be the chief; the man responsible for the goals. He wanted to be in control. If he turned the tap off, everyone would have to beg him to turn it back on. That was Román. His ego mattered. He was worth loving.

His return of 44 goals in 194 games for Boca between 1996 and 2002 says very little about his impact. That many of these goals were astounding works of beauty, from mazy dribbles and long-range belters to clever flicks and free-kicks, go unnoticed in the raw stats. An afternoon on YouTube cures that.

And so, with his targets achieved at Boca, and his place in the Argentina squad assured, Riquelme opted to move to Europe. Most of the big clubs on the continent circled the midfielder, who, at the time, was embroiled in personal drama after his brother was kidnapped, in the hope of landing a powerful creative outlet.

With Barcelona holding a long-term interest in their man, clearly intent on re-establishing those ‘new Maradona’ links, Román opted to move to the Camp Nou. For what now seems like a bargain deal, the Argentine signed on for just £9m. Europe beckoned.

Few Barcelona signings had garnered as much anticipation from the Blaugrana as Riquelme. This was a time when videos from around the world were making their way online and where the skills of exotic, South American stars were viewable, not just readable. Fans had seen their new signing in action – they’d seen the talent.

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What they didn’t foresee however (some probably did) was that manager Louis van Gaal was never going to be the man to get much out of Riquelme. He simply wouldn’t fit into his system. Van Gaal, in his second spell at the club, quickly marginalised Román, labelling him a “political signing”. Political signing or not, surely the talent was there to see.

With Riquelme needing his ego and confidence massaged, Van Gaal grew increasingly frustrated. Results were below par and there wasn’t time for the club’s superstar signing of the summer to make an impact. What was a dream move for Riquelme – an opportunity to earn money to pay for his mother’s increasing medical bills and be satisfied that has talent was being rewarded – soon turned into a nightmare. Without being given a chance to shine, the Barcelona dream was over.

Critics rounded on the Argentine. In Buenos Aires, those opposed to his style of play had labelled him pecho frío, literally meaning cold chested, at his lack of work for the team. They claimed he would go missing in games. ‘How could he possibly succeed at a club like Barça?’ they asked. In some respects they were right, Riquelme’s allure was based on genius and charm, but came at the expense of functionality. He was never the man to close the opposition down. He would struggle under a number of top managers today whose success has been based on the modern principles of closing space. He genius is without doubt, but the horse must still pull the cart according to many.

With his stint in Barcelona effectively ended by the signing of Ronaldinho – who took Barcelona’s non-EU count over the limit – Riquelme looked for pastures new. Benito Floro, the well-travelled Spanish coach, in charge of Villarreal at the time, jumped on the chance to sign Román. He was looking for an attacking outlet and was prepared to give him the freedom and love to show the world what Barcelona were missing.

By now the Maradona comparison’s had ended. Joining Román in the province of Castellón, Diego Forlán made the journey over after a tricky spell at Manchester United. Having admired Riquelme from afar during his spell at Independiente, Forlán remembers him fondly:

“I joined him there in 2005. He was a big reason for me choosing Villarreal. We’d play together in attack, him as a number 10 providing me with the balls to score. We still didn’t know each other that well, but he shook my hand at training and insisted that I was eating at his place that night. He asked what food I liked. I said milanesa (a breaded meat fillet). I arrived later to milanesa and mashed potatoes cooked by Román, which only my brother’s cooking could match. Román was a potato specialist.

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“We clicked immediately on the pitch. We’d both had some tricky times at our previous clubs, but at Villarreal we came alive under Manuel Pellegrini, who knew us both from Argentina, where he’d managed San Lorenzo and River Plate. Riquelme would anticipate my runs and give me balls every striker would dream of. I scored from them, often.

“We didn’t play football to make friends and shake hands with everyone. We played to win. He was a private, loyal man from a family of nine or 10 children. He adored his brothers and sisters. It was hard to get into his inner circle, but once you were in, you had a loyal friend.”

Few players garner such lofty praise from their peers. Riquelme, wherever he want, was adored as much by those around him as those in the stands. That his critics pointed to his lack of work off the ball is ludicrous; his teammates rarely blinked. The few that did moan often had Riquelme to thank for bailing them out of games, for creating goals, for drawing opposition markers to allow others to operate in greater space.

It’s easy to criticise the horse for not pulling the cart, but some horses just aren’t meant for the field. They’re too perfect. They belong in more refined surroundings. In his head, he must’ve painted a thousand pictures. Where mere mortals passed the ball, Riquelme guided it. Where other great players would shoot, he would talk to the ball, encourage it to go where he wanted. Genius is word bandied about too often. Not in this case.

Under Manuel Pellegrini, who was forging his own reputation in Europe, Riquelme grew to become the best playmaker in the world for a period of time. His performances for Argentina were becoming consistent and his time at Villarreal, not shy of controversy, was fruitful.

Despite missing a crucial penalty against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final in 2006, he had already been awarded the Most Artistic Player in Spain by Marca. He was riding the crest of a giant wave, a wave that many believed would take him to glory in the upcoming World Cup with Argentina.

Having missed the 2002 World Cup because “his head wasn’t right” following the kidnap of his brother, Riquelme had to make up for lost time. In one of the better editions of the tournament in the modern era, Román demonstrated all his prodigious playmaking skill in setting Argentina up to go all the way.

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Those who weren’t able to watch Spanish football rejoiced in seeing his talent. With two assists in the first three group games, regularly pulling the strings between the lines, Riquelme was at his best. He won the Man of the Match award in the second group game against Serbia and Montenegro.

Setting up Hernán Crespo in the last-16 against Mexico, Argentina progressed courtesy of a world-class effort from the unheralded Maxi Rodríguez. It set up a quarter-final showdown with hosts Germany. Having assisted yet again in the tournament, this time for Roberto Ayala’s opener, Riquelme was taken off in the 72nd minute. His fitness levels were undoubtedly struggling after a long season with Villarreal. With Argentina dominating possession and in complete control, it looked, in theory, like the right move.

With Román off the pitch, the game unravelled. Despite having no control of the game’s tempo, Germany found a new lease of life without the Villarreal man on the pitch. Just eight minutes after he departed, Miroslav Klose brought Germany back into the match. By now it was panic stations for La Albiceleste. They couldn’t keep the ball and were struggling to create chances. Without Riquelme, Argentina never recovered and lost via a penalty shootout.

Having dominated, personally and as part of the team, for 72 minutes, Riquelme never fully recovered from that loss. He blamed José Pékerman for taking him off; he was off the pitch when Argentina needed him most. Riquelme’s career was slowly becoming one of missed opportunities.

For a man who wanted to dictate his life both on and off the pitch, the last two years had proved to go against the grain. Retiring from the national team was the first step on the road to taking back control. The next would come at Villarreal.

Manuel Pellegrini had always granted Riquelme special dispensation. He missed training when he wanted, ran less than most of his peers and would spend more time in his native country than the squad’s other foreigners. It was all with a purpose: to have Román operating under the conditions he preferred. To keep him smiling.

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In the end, European football was too much for the Argentine. The journey no longer motivated him, and with wages on the rise in his native Argentina, the chance to return home to his ailing mother was too hard to resist.

As Sid Lowe sums up in one of his blog posts from 2007, Riquelme was given every chance to succeed. Simply put, his time was up: ‘They [Villarreal] surrounded him with Argentinians, said nothing when he brought a plane-load of friends over from Don Torcuato, never questioned his “injuries”, and turned a blind eye when he didn’t fancy training. They even turned a blind eye when he didn’t fancy playing, even though they’d built a team around him and made him ever-present, whatever his physical condition. If Riquelme wanted to play, he played: in the last two seasons he has not started a single game as sub.

‘They also allowed him to travel back to Argentina for the birth of his son. And he didn’t even say thanks. When he returned from that extended stay, he announced his intention not to train and Pellegrini decided it was the final straw. Likewise, president Fernando Roig, who announced: “He will obey the club and fulfill his obligations – or else he’ll have problems with me.” The club had given him everything. Never again.’

In February 2007, Riquelme re-joined his boyhood club Boca Juniors. Those close to the midfielder knew his time in Europe was up, but fans held out hope. After all, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The move to Buenos Aires represented the passing of the most graceful player to have come out of Argentina since Fernando Redondo. It represented the end of a dream. The end of the fantasy. Ego, a lack of motivation, and the chance to control his own life tore Riquelme away from Europe.

Six years in his homeland awaited.

His time back at La Bombonera would bring him the coveted Copa Libertadores title again in 2007, in addition to the Apertura in 2008 and 2011. An Olympic gold medal in 2008 would be scant reward for his career with the national team.

Back in Buenos Aires his time at Boca still drew inevitable controversy. The club’s fellow iconic star, Martín Palermo, a player known for his combative, bustling style – he couldn’t have been more different to Riquelme on the pitch – had fundamental issues with Riquelme. They were worlds apart. Two different beings, brought together under the Boca umbrella.

Palermo, devoid of talent but full of energy in his movement, power in the air and intelligence in his finishing, would score 236 goals in Boca blue. His 219th goal, against Arsenal de Sarandí, would ultimately sum up the differences between Riquelme and Palermo.

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Román, having magically weaved his way through the Arsenal defence with typical skill, was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Just six yards out, with the whole goal to aim for, he instead squared it to his onrushing teammate – and foe – Palermo. As Palermo stroked the ball in, Riquelme rushed off to celebrate away from Palermo. Half the team joined him too. That was Riquelme’s worth – making others look better than they were. According to various reports, he later told Palermo: “Anyone can score goals like that.”

Having scored 48 goals in 187 games after returning to Boca, where he was idolised by the fans, cementing his legacy as one the last great fantasistas, he left for one final hurrah at Argentinos Juniors before calling time on his career in January 2015, 18 years after a cocky “new Maradona” had stepped onto the scene.

For some fans, Riquelme represented the very pinnacle of football. He blended the idea of fantasy and just enough aloofness to keep them glued to the television. His ability to drift in and out of games and influence proceeding when it was needed most was both unique and frustrating. Frustrating because you can’t help but feel that Riquelme should’ve ended his career in the pantheon of true greats. His ability deserved as much.

But what is true greatness? Is it measured in trophies? Personal accolades? Fellow players’ praise? True greatness is indeed part success. But it’s also about what legacy you leave behind. Fifty-one caps and 17 goals for Argentina represents a meagre return for a player who struggled to live outside the confines of his own beliefs. Román will blame his lack of caps on politics – and that did play a part – but there’s more to it than just that.

Politics, ego and controversy aside, what football was given in Juan Román Riquelme was natural talent rarely seen before. The sport, and its endless army of fans, was treated to a player who played football for its beauty. He played to make it a better place for those around him. The joy of seeing a teammate score after receiving his pass was ecstasy. It kept him coming back for more – until his body decided that time was up.

For me, Riquelme represents an idea – one that sadly doesn’t have a place in the modern game. The idea that he’s so good at football that he plays by his own rules. He sings to his own beat. Whether that makes him a true great or not is up for debate, but one thing is certain: there was greatness in those feet.

With a life away from the pitch calling Riquelme, we’re left with the memory of a genius who was a master at caressing the ball. At guiding it. At making the game seem so easy. “The ball has given me everything. Just like little girls love dolls, the best toy I’ve ever had, or could ever have, is a football. The person who invented it is a true hero: nobody can top that.”

By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem

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