Riquelme, who retired last month, had a special bond with Boca’s No 10 shirt. It was a match made in football heaven, writes Dileep Premachandran
Juan Sasturain, an Argentine novelist who has published 11 novels over the past three decades, once said of him: “It is more enriching for the spirit and the soul to watch Riquelme play than it is to read (literature).”
Juan Roman Riquelme of Boca Juniors during the Emirates Cup match against Arsenal in London on July 30, 2011. Pic/Getty Images
Jorge Valdano, a World Cup winner in 1986 and possibly the most articulate man in football, put it slightly differently. “If we have to travel from point A to point B, everyone would take the six-lane highway and get there as quickly as possible,” he said. “Everyone, except Riquelme. He would choose the winding mountain road, that takes six hours, but that fills your eyes with scenes of beautiful landscapes.”
The man they spoke of retired on January 25, after turning down a lucrative contract from Cerro Porteno in Paraguay. In reality though, it had all ended last July, when he left Boca Juniors for Argentinos Juniors, his boyhood club.
Riquelme and Boca’s No 10 shirt were a match made in football heaven, and for all that he achieved at modest Villarreal during his European odyssey, it never felt right to see him in any colours other than Boca’s navy and gold.
Riquelme was a throwback to an age when football was about more than athleticism and strength. In many ways, he was the last of the enganches, the classical No 10s that Argentina has been famed for ever since Ricardo Bochini, Diego Maradona’s childhood hero, made the position his own with Independiente in the 1970s and ’80s. Enganche is Spanish for hook, and what these playmakers did so skillfully was ‘hook’ the midfield to the forwards.
They did it with great subtlety too. Like Bochini, Riquelmewas never in a hurry. His close control was immaculate, and he never ran more than absolutely necessary. Where he was unrivalled was in his ability to pick a pass, to bide his time until a teammate was perfectly placed to run on to a ball that had been exquisitely weighted.
It was one of life’s great ironies that Riquelme’s greatest successes with Boca coincided with the times when Martin Palermo – the club’s all-time leading scorer – was in the line-up. For those that don’t know or understand football, Palermo is just the answer to a trivia question – the man who missed three penalties in a Copa America game against Colombia in 1999. He was otherwise a consummate finisher, with foot and head, but he was no artist, and the dressing room atmosphere was frequently poisonous because of the tension between him and Riquelme.
If there was a dark side to Riquelme’s genius, it was that inability to shed his ego. He fetishized his method, leaving coaches like Louis van Gaal and Manuel Pellegrini, once such a supporter at Villarreal, little option but to exclude him from their plans. When a team was built around him, as both Villarreal and Argentina were from 2004 to 2006, he excelled. Without the conductor’s baton, he tended to sulk.
The what-ifs are many. Had Jens Lehmann not saved his penalty in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2005-06, Villarreal and not Arsenal might have gone on to the Paris final against Barcelona. Frank Rijkaard’s team, eviscerated 3-0 by Riquelme’s skill at El Madrigal the previous season, would certainly not have fancied a reunion with the player that they let go off after only one troubled year.
And what if Jose Pekerman, under whom he played his best football for Argentina, had not substituted him in the World Cup quarter-final against Germany in 2006? As much as Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the final, the abiding memory of that tournament will be the 24-move symphony that Argentina put together against Serbia and Montenegro.
He may have caused dressing room discord, but off the field, Riquelme, who came from as poor a background as Maradona, was one of the few modern-day players to maintain a sense of perspective. “I always say football is my job from Monday to Saturday,” he said once. “On Sundays I can’t call it a job because playing the match is the most lovely thing for a player.”
He made sure that those that watched him shared that pleasure.