Mario Yepes enjoyed a more than stellar career. The centre-back played 102 times for his country between 1999 and 2014, making him Colombia’s second-highest capped player of all time behind the enigmatic, frizzy-haired legend Carlos Valderrama. Yepes also starred for hometown club Deportivo Cali, River Plate and San Lorenzo in Argentina, Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain in France, and Chievo, AC Milan and Atalanta in Italy’s Serie A.
After hanging up his boots, he briefly went into management with former club Cali, lasting less than a year before he was fired for poor results and performances. Despite his longevity and success in the game, if you search “Mario Yepes River Plate” on YouTube, one of the first listings brings up a moment he would surely rather forget.
Yepes’ River were pitted against sworn enemies Boca Juniors in the 2000 Copa Libertadores quarter-finals. River were Argentina’s form team at the time, winning both championships either side of the tie with Boca, adding those two trophies to six other domestic triumphs in the 1990s. Boca were no slouches at the time either, having picked up two championship victories in recent years following a six-year drought. However, as the old cliche goes, form goes out of the window for cup games, and especially derby matches. This tie was to be no different.
River had home advantage first, with Boca visiting El Monumental on 17 May 2000 for the opening leg. The hosts took the lead after just 15 minutes through Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel. The ball fell kindly to the future Aston Villa favourite after Boca goalkeeper Óscar Córdoba – another Colombian – misjudged a cross, and he lashed the ball home from eight yards.
Fifteen minutes later Boca were awarded a free-kick on the right-hand corner of River’s box. Normally from this angle, you’d expect the ball to be aimed over the wall and into the near corner, to the goalkeeper’s right; Juan Román Riquelme, however, has always done things his own way and this was no exception. The magician whipped the ball towards the opposite side of the net, completely wrong-footing River goalkeeper Roberto Bonano. Javier Saviola restored River’s lead in the second half, after driving at the heart of the Boca defence before unleashing an unstoppable shot from more than 20 yards, and the game ended 2-1.
One week later River visited La Bombonera looking to defend their slender lead from the first leg. With the away goal rule not in force, Boca knew one goal would be enough to take the game to extra time, providing they could keep a clean sheet at the other end. As in the first leg, the home side drew blood first with Marcelo Delgado breaking the deadlock for Boca on the hour to set up a tense final 30 minutes. Delgado scruffily converted a deep cross from Riquelme following a calamitous mix-up between Bonano and one of his defenders, reminiscent of the error that gave River the lead in the first leg.
After 74 minutes, manager Carlos Bianchi would make an inspired substitution, withdrawing Gustavo Barros Schelotto for Sebastian Battaglia. Ten minutes later Riquelme released Battaglia, who was felled after bursting into the penalty box. Riquelme dispatched the resulting penalty with customary aplomb to give Boca the edge, 3-2 on aggregate. After playing a pivotal role in all three of Boca’s goals in the tie so far, Riquelme’s tail was up and two minutes after the penalty he produced a moment of magic that would become legendary.
Right-sided midfielder Julio Marchant picked up the ball deep in his own half, clipping the ball into the feet of Riquelme who was loitering close to the touchline just inside River territory. Vastly out of position, central defender Yepes approached Riquelme like a moth drawn to a flame.
Just as he could feel the touch of the Colombian on his back, Riquelme ran his right foot over the top of the ball, before flicking it backwards through the legs of the bemused Yepes. Yepes was the raging bull, and like all good matadors, Riquelme waited until the last possible minute before raising the red flag and outfoxing his nemesis.
Riquelme then span off to his left and collected the ball on the other side. He jumped through the challenge of two further markers before rubbing salt in the wounds by evading a further tackle, playing with more than four River defenders at the same time.
The ball was finally run out of play towards River’s corner flag, and even though it technically came to nothing, the psychological damage was done. It signified that the tie was over and that Boca, and Riquelme in particular, were able to play with their opponents like a rag doll. Riquelme later said that throughout his career the ball was like a toy to him, and he certainly played with Yepes that day.
The cherry on the icing on the cake was provided by Boca’s all-time leading goalscorer, Martín Palermo. El Titán was returning following a long injury layoff – 193 days to be exact – that had scuppered a move to Italian giants Lazio. His introduction from the bench in the 77th minute – when the tie was still in the balance – was meant to have a detrimental psychological effect on River Plate, and it certainly worked.
In the 90th minute, Palermo made it 3-0 to Boca after further good work from Riquelme and Battaglia. Palermo turned beautifully on the ball inside River’s box, wrong-footing the defence before neatly slotting the ball into the bottom corner with his left foot.
Boca would go on to win the competition that year, eliminating Mexico’s Club América in the semi-finals and beating Palmeiras of Brazil on penalties in the final. Bianchi’s reign, under current president of the nation and former Boca president, Mauricio Macri, still marks the most successful period in the club’s history.
With El Virrey in the dugout, Boca won four national championships and three Copa Libertadores. Those continental triumphs even gave Boca the chance to compete with Europe’s finest for the Intercontinental Cup. Against the odds, Boca defeated Real Madrid and AC Milan – in 2000 and 2003 respectively – to add to their already burgeoning trophy cabinet and cement their legendary status. The Intercontinental Cup – now called the Club World Cup – is often given more credence in South America than in Europe, where it is seen as somewhat of a distraction in the calendar. On both occasions, Boca’s players returned home heroes.
River would bounce back from this defeat to Boca, winning five national championships over the course of the next decade, before an improbable relegation in 2011.
Riquelme is now known to football fans the world over, but at the time of the nutmeg he was 22-year-old yet to make his mark on the world, despite six international caps and a handful of domestic titles to his name. In 2002 Riquelme would follow in the footsteps of his idol-turned-nemesis Diego Maradona by signing for Barcelona, although as with Maradona, his time at the Camp Nou would be fairly fleeting.
Riquelme predictably fell foul of the rigid Dutch pragmatist Louis van Gaal and was sent to Villarreal on an initial two-year loan before spending a further two years with the Yellow Submarine following a permanent transfer. It was with at El Madrigal, under former Manchester City manager Mauricio Pellegrini, that Riquelme made his name, operating at the heart of a stunning team, matching Europe’s heavyweights with a minute budget in comparison.
Riquelme would return to Boca in 2007 and spend another seven years at La Bombonera, adding two more league titles and a further Copa Libertadores to his medal cabinet. He finished his career with a season in the second tier at Argentinos Juniors, where he started his career in the youth team.
Riquelme is one of his generation’s most gifted and revered players, and it was moments like the Yepes nutmeg – not to mention the numerous team and individual awards that he collected – that solidified his legend.
The nutmeg is one of football’s most loved tricks, able to draw cheers from a crowd and anger from the recipient in equal measure. The origin of the English term is debated. In his 1998 book Over the Moon, Brian author Alex Leith explored how a lexicon of phrases found their way onto the tongues of British football fans. Leith claims that the ‘nut’ part of the word refers to the slang word for testicles, and that nutmeg is a variation on this. It’s also been claimed that the ‘meg’ part comes from cockney rhyming slang for leg.
Another theory is that nutmeg is a rare spice, or perhaps was when the phrase was coined, and that the move is a rare one on the football field. None of these can be verified, which only adds to the intrigue and mystique of the word.
In other languages, the phrase tunnel is used, which is a lot more sensible and easily understood. In Spanish, Riquelme’s mother tongue, the phrase caño is used. This word means tube or pipe, a variation on the tunnel theme, and generally relates to water. Geographically, water is able to force its path wherever it pleases, forging through whatever stands in its way. In nutmegging Yepes, Riquelme took the shortest path beyond his opponent, forcing the ball through an unwanted area, like a body of water, leaving a legacy that would last a lifetime.
Tricks, perhaps in South America more than anywhere, are a hugely important part of the game. Contrary to the old-fashioned English characteristic of hard work, honesty and winning like gentlemen – although it must be said this is less prevalent now due to the globalisation of the English game – South Americans are typically willing to win by all means necessary. Tricking your opponent, and even the referee, is seen as a positive attribute and a perfectly acceptable way to win a football match. In the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona talked of “pickpocketing“ the English when he blatantly scored past Peter Shilton with his fist.
In a football match, certain moments cause fans to stand en masse, creating the rat-a-tat-tat sound of plastic seats closing, or to surge forward in standing areas like a tidal wave. Goals, penalty saves and crunching tackles are capable of producing such moments during the course of a 90-minute match. For the flair players, there is no end of tricks that can have this very same effect on the fans, wowing them and embarrassing their opponents in one fell swoop. In May 2000 Riquelme did just that to Mario Yepes, and almost two decades later it is still talked about as if it happened yesterday.
It wasn’t the first or last time that Riquelme would embarrass an opponent, but given the magnitude of the occasion and the fierce rivalry with River Plate, it has to be considered one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest outright – nutmegs of all time. In typical Riquelme fashion, he played down the incident and was full of praise for his victim: “Whenever I’m asked about this trick, I always say it has more worth for Yepes than me. In a 3-0 Clásico with a trick such as this, I believe that any other player would have kicked out. Yet he followed me all the way to the corner without doing a thing. This is much more manly than nutmegging someone.”
Riquelme’s words are proof that even when it comes to tricks, there is still a code amongst old school figures such as the Argentine and Yepes.
By Dan Williamson