A forensic analysis of Juan Roman Riquelme’s magnum opus v Real

Nostalgia

When Juan Roman Riquelme retired in 2015 after an 18-year professional career, he didn’t say too much. He never was a man of many words. Yet of the few sentences he did manage, two stood out: “I enjoyed football to the maximum. I hope the people have enjoyed it alongside me.”

They felt incongruous. Not untrue, but odd side by side. For all that he was brilliant – and he really was – Riquelme never truly had the air of a man who enjoyed what he did. At least not in the usual sense.

On the pitch, he often scowled and huffed. He played in a way that was nonchalant to the point of disinterest or detachment. The look on his face was almost always of the tortured artiste, forlorn and full of regret.

Off the pitch, he was a pain; disobedient of authority and a disruptive figure in the dressing room. In his homeland, his long-running feuds with Diego Maradona and Boca Juniors team-mate Martin Palermo were as discussed as his unique ability on the field.

Yet Riquelme did bring joy to the people. To me, certainly. To you, too, most probably. Most of all, though, to the fanatical supporters of Boca Juniors. Why? Because Riquelme was different.

While many of the players around him laboured and battled, Riquelme produced art, much of it in the blue and gold shirt of the club from the Bombonera. As a result, his career cannot only be defined by titles won. His ideas are as central to his legend as his material achievements.

Still, every artist needs a magnum opus, the work that defines their career. And for Riquelme, that work is Boca Juniors’ 2000 Intercontinental Cup.

At the turn of the millennium, Boca were moving into a new golden era. The 1980s and 1990s had been hard; fallow by the standards of an institution that demands victory.

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READ: A tribute to Juan Roman Riquelme, one of football’s best and truest No.10s

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But under the presidency of Mauricio Macri, things had already begun to change. Manager Carlos Bianchi was recruited with the expectation that he would repeat the success he had had with Velez Sarsfield in the early 1990s and immediately started to build a team with just as much grit as grace.

Soon, the trophies began to flow again. League titles came in 1998 and 1999, the latter won with a 40-game unbeaten run. Then, after a 22-year wait, the big one, the “obsession”: la Copa Libertadores.

Alongside Palermo and Riquelme in Bianchi’s team, there was the Colombian duo of Jorge Bermudez and Oscar Cordoba as well as Argentinian Marcelo Delgado, Jose Basualdo, Walter Samuel, Sebastian Battaglia, Christian Traverso and Hugo Ibarra.

Together, they cruised through the group stage of the 2000 Libertadores and dispatched Ecuador’s El Nacional in the round of 16. Then the real test: a Superclasico quarter-final against local rivals River Plate.

The hype was understandably huge. It was the first meeting of the two giants of Argentinian football in the knockout stages of the Libertadores and, if any additional excitement was required, the game marked the return of Boca’s star striker Martin Palermo after six months out injured.

In the first leg, River won 2-1 at home, Riquelme getting Boca’s only goal. But the tie remained in the balance and in the second leg back at the Bombonera, Boca turned it around in brutal style, Riquelme again at the centre of it, of course.

It was the display not only of a genius but of someone who could produce at a crucial juncture. Riquelme set up the first, scored the second from the spot, pulled off one of the most magnificent nutmegs in football history and played a part in creating the third for the returning Palermo. Boca were through.

They then scraped past America of Mexico 5-4 on aggregate before beating Palmeiras on penalties after a two-legged final in June ended in a 2-2 draw.

As the most delectable sweetener to the main prize, the victory set Boca up for a shot at the European champions. And not any European champions. The final of the ‘Mundial’ was to be Boca versus Real Madrid, just about the biggest game you could hope for in intercontinental football. A tie dripping in history and prestige.

Los Blancos were well into another golden era of their own and had won the Champions League a month prior to Boca’s Libertadores triumph, Madrid’s eighth European title and the second of three in five seasons.

The two sides, though, would have to wait until November to meet in Japan. In the interlude, there were some important developments.

In the Spanish capital, Florentino Perez was elected president of Madrid and fulfilled his election promise of bringing in Luis Figo from Barcelona, marking the start of the Galacticos era.

In the Argentinian capital, meanwhile, Boca had continued their fine form despite selling the rock-hard defender Walter Samuel and were romping to another league title.

Still, Vicente del Bosque’s star-studded side were a different proposition to those they were used to facing at home. It was pre-Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham, but Madrid still boasted Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Guti, Steve McManaman, Claude Makelele, Raul and the aforementioned Figo. Days before the Intercontinental Cup match, Madrid had beaten David O’Leary’s Leeds 2-0 at Elland Road in the second group phase of the Champions League.

Boca knew they needed to prepare well and travelled to Tokyo over a week before the game, both to acclimatise to the cold and overcome jet lag. Intelligently, they also used the time to drum up support, signing autographs and taking photos with the locals.

Yet there was an issue: Riquelme was not 100% fit. Upon arrival, he told the press: “From tomorrow I will train with the team and I hope the knee doesn’t bother me. If it’s bad, I’ll speak to the doctor. I don’t think the team depends on me. I believe we have a good team.”

That may well have been true, but it didn’t calm concerns among the thousands of Boca fans who had made the journey alongside their team.

Yet by the day of the game, Riquelme was deemed fit – or at least fit enough to play. When the teams were announced, one can only imagine that the hardcore Xeneizes and their new Japanese sympathisers gathered in the National Stadium in Tokyo breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Bianchi’s plan for Riquelme was immediately clear. As always he played with the No.10 on his back, but unusually he had been instructed to play on the left in order to evade the attentions of Makelele, using that side as a base from which to drift.

His first touch came almost on the touchline. Riquelme received it in acres of room, ambled towards the middle and sprayed a right-footed pass to right-back Hugo Ibarra. He followed the pass across, got it back, held off Makelele, turned and sprayed a left-footed pass to left-back Anibal Matellan.

It was a simple passage of play, but the message was clear. See this round leather thing here? It’s mine and if you want it, you’ll have to take it. As Brazil’s 1970 striker Tostao once wrote: “Riquelme treats the ball with such care that it lovingly and gratefully, with the humility of a dog, follows the craque all over the pitch to kiss his feet.”

Not two minutes had gone but, just as the Argentinian television commentators were explaining the thinking behind Riquelme’s positioning, the game burst into life.

Matellan played a pass up the line to Delgado, who had made the diagonal run from in to out. Delgado crossed, Palermo burst into the six-yard box to meet it and, just like that, Boca were ahead.

If Madrid thought they would come and dominate, their illusions were shattered.

Del Bosque’s side, flustered, immediately tried to react. They flooded forwards and Boca got back into their shape. As always, though, Riquelme stayed just ahead of the defence with Palermo upfield, the No.10 ready to pounce on any loose ball and the No.9 ready to counter if anything fell his way. Soon it would; and not just anything but a pass from heaven.

Madrid lost the ball on the edge of the Boca area, it was prodded out to Riquelme, and he knew what to do next. A little look up and he noticed Palermo advancing beyond right-back Geremi. A swish of the right boot and the pass was away.

It floated through the air, painting a perfect parabola in the night sky. It bounced on the edge of the Madrid area, just enough backspin on it that it didn’t carry through to Casillas. Palermo was in and as Geremi tried to grab his right arm, he swung his left leg at the ball, putting it into the far corner well beyond the reach of Casillas.

Six minutes. 2-0.

Madrid would have to go all out to claw their way back and soon enough, they showed signs that they were capable. Fernando Hierro sprayed a long ball out to the left, Roberto Carlos chested it down on the left of the pitch, cut in and whacked a right-footed shot off the bar.

Five minutes more had gone when Roberto Carlos received it again in a similar position, chested it down again and this time, with his stronger left, found the top corner of Oscar Cordoba’s goal. Still just a dozen minutes into the game, Madrid had pulled one back.

Momentum had swung and it looked like Boca were in for a rough remaining 78 minutes.

Yet if there was anyone who could take a game and bend it to his will – not win it, necessarily, but completely control how, where and at what speed it was played – it was Riquelme. Fortunately for Boca, he was ready to work.

Halfway through the first half, with Madrid trying to keep up the impetus they had gained, Riquelme picked up another loose ball in Madrid’s half, this time with Makelele closer than before.

The Boca No.10 feinted a raking pass to the right and twisted back to his left. One touch and two and three took him towards the wing, Makelele shadowing his every move. But another feint to pass saw Makelele go the wrong way for a nanosecond and Riquelme was away, proving as he so often did that a lack of straight-line speed is no impediment to being a fine dribbler.

Riquelme was in and Makelele, as good a man-to-man defender as he was, was forced to pull him down. It was a perfect bit of play for the moment it happened at; a free-kick in a great position and the sting taken from the game.

A few more minutes passed and Riquelme demanded the ball once more, now drawing two markers, McManaman sent to help Makelele with an impossible task.

Riquelme took them both toward the left wing, turned back and sprayed a perfect, 40-yard pass to Delgado, who had spotted the space freed up on the other side. Delgado powered towards the box, white shirts trailing in his wake and was only stopped by the 19-year-old Casillas in the Madrid goal.

Riquelme was in the groove, fully aware of what was required to keep his side in the lead. He was not a great one for defending, but if you can keep the ball in the opposition half, push them back and draw fouls, then you do not need to.

Soon he was at it again, this time drawing Makelele and Geremi to mark him and winning a free-kick from the latter. As Geremi complained, Riquelme looked down, dolefully projecting a snot rocket towards the ground.

For Riquelme to hold possession and gain territory and time, the passes into him did not need to be perfect balls to feet, either. As the interval approached, a long punt was brought down, this time in the middle of the pitch, perfectly prodded past Makelele and into the space to Riquelme’s right. The Frenchman was left sprawled ignominiously on the floor.

A few seconds more elapsed and Riquelme was on the left again. A short dribble made space and another perfect pass was sent flying out towards the right. Boca were in control. Riquelme was in control.

Early in the second half, Riquelme sent a free-kick crashing towards the top corner, stopped only by a flying save from young Casillas. But by now, Madrid were seriously pushing and finally, they were managing to create chances. Unfortunately for them, the offside trap set by Bianchi was working perfectly. Twice Madrid put the ball into the Boca net in the second period, twice the assistant’s flag was raised.

Riquelme’s quick feet, meanwhile, continued to torment the Madrid midfield and defence. First, he turned Ivan Helguera in the centre circle, then he span around Makelele on the left and burst past Geremi towards the corner flag.

“It was difficult to get the ball off Riquelme,” Fernando Hierro said with a degree of understatement some years later. “He had at all moments the timing to manage the game.”

Eventually, space began to open up and Riquelme at one point nearly put Battaglia through on goal, only for Roberto Carlos’ pacy recovery run to thwart him.

As the end approached, Riquelme picked the ball up on the left once more, dribbled past Helguera, then Geremi, then turned back and dribbled past Geremi and McManaman. Geremi resorted to fouling the irrepressible Argentinian and was booked for his accumulated efforts. “In the second half, he hasn’t lost one ball,” purred the Argentinian TV commentator of Riquelme, “Esto es showtime.

That was it, Riquelme had marshalled the game through to its conclusion. The score from the opening dozen minutes remained unchanged and Boca Juniors were world champions.

That, finally, was enough. Riquelme smiled.

Ballon d’Or winner Figo, wearing the white No.10 shirt, had been expected to star. Instead, it was the 22-year-old Argentinian in the blue and gold No.10 shirt who had stolen the show.

Real Madrid being Real Madrid, there were immediately calls for Perez to sign the young Argentinian, to make him part of the superstar project that was taking shape. But Riquelme did not want to leave Boca, not yet. He stayed for another year and lifted another Libertadores before eventually signing for Barcelona on the other side of the Spanish Clasico divide.

Del Bosque revealed years later that he wished the story had been different. “[Riquelme] was a player of great talent and could have played for Real Madrid,” he lamented.

Of that 2000 Intercontinental Cup, Del Bosque said: “It seemed like we were better [before the game], but in the end they imposed themselves with class, with quality, with everything. They beat us and nothing more, in football one team wins and one loses.”

Sometimes, the difference between those two fates can be decided by one player.

By Joshua Law


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