Juan Roman Riquelme was certainly not perfect, but the most entertaining players rarely are. He defined what it meant to wear No.10.
Argentina has a long, largely joyful and sometimes torturous relationship with the No.10, a role which has a deep cultural significance. Referred to as the Enganche, the playmaker is revered there like nowhere else. And the public expects.
For the national team, Diego Maradona was the archetype, followed by pretenders to the crown such as Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Andres D’Alessandro and Pablo Aimar. Each was cursed by the ‘new Maradona’ tag before Lionel Messi proved the true heir.
Juan Roman Riquelme was caught somewhere in between. Arguably the purest example of the No.10, his languid style and silken touch enraptured at times and infuriated at others.
A master of space and angles, unlocking tightly-packed defences and toying with the opposition, in many ways he was a player strangely out of step with modern football – a throwback to a slower-paced and less physically-demanding era.
Like Maradona before him, Riquelme went from Argentinos Juniors to Barcelona via Boca Juniors. And the beginning of the latter’s career was symbolically entwined with the ending of the former’s.
On October 25, 1997, the fading star exited the stage for the last time. To a standing ovation, Maradona was substituted at half-time of the Superclasico against bitter rivals River Plate. His replacement was a 19-year-old Riquelme, who helped Boca come from behind to claim a 2-1 win.
He enjoyed seven seasons at La Bombonera, during which the club won six titles, including successive Copa Libertadores.
After almost 200 games, 44 goals, countless assists, pirouettes and defence-splitting through-balls, Riquelme joined Barcelona for £10million in 2002.
But by that time, even in the more sedate and tactically sophisticated Spanish league, greater intensity and stamina were being demanded. It was no longer enough to coast on technique alone.
In what would become a trend throughout his career, Riquelme was treated as a misfit and an outcast. Barcelona manager Louis Van Gaal complained that Riquelme was a signing who had been imposed upon him.
He featured intermittently and was most often pushed out to the wing, where his talents were dulled and his deficiencies exacerbated. Pace and directness were never his strong suits and it showed.
Unloved at Barcelona, he found refuge in the most unlikely of places. Riquelme was loaned out to Villarreal, who had reached the top flight for the first time in 1998.
Situated in a small, unassuming city, looking out over the Mediterranean sea, Riquelme’s love for football was reignited by a club willing to build around him. Over the next four years he was integral to Villarreal’s success as they upset the odds to challenge Europe’s elite.
They finished eighth in Riquelme’s first season, followed by a record high of third in 2004-05.
With Marcos Senna breaking up play behind him, Riquelme was free to preserve his energy high up the pitch, loading the bullets for Diego Forlan, a fellow misfit who rediscovered his purpose at Villarreal and ended up winning the European Golden Boot with 25 goals.
Riquelme scored 15 himself that season, and his delicate yet decisive performances saw him nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Next year, while Villarreal’s league form suffered, they progressed to the semi-finals of the Champions League with Riquelme the orchestrator of that run.
He was the man they turned to when it mattered most, but, on the brink of history, he let them down.
Arsenal had won the first leg 1-0. In the 88th minute of the return match at El Madrigal, with the game goalless, Riquelme had the chance to draw the tie level from the penalty spot.
His usual assuredness deserted him as the ball was struck centrally, and with no real venom. Jens Lehmann palmed it away and the visitors held on.
On the international stage, meanwhile, after a spell of exile from the Argentina squad, Riquelme had become the lynchpin under Jose Pekerman heading into the 2006 World Cup.
They started their campaign by beating Ivory Coast 2-1, with Riquelme setting up both goals, and then crushed Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 as the puppet master put on one of his finest shows.
Argentina progressed to the quarter-finals against Germany and were many people’s favourites to win the trophy, and it looked good when Daniel Ayala headed them in front from Riquelme’s corner early in the second half against the host nation.
Riquelme was in imperious form, playing the game at his own pace and keeping Argentina in control. But everything changed when Pekerman unexpectedly withdrew him and surrendered the initiative.
Within eight minutes Germany were level and went on to win the penalty shoot-out.
Riquelme tried to step away from international football but was convinced to return and was once more Argentina’s outstanding player as they reached the Copa America final the following year.
Yet struggling to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, in a decision driven by sentiment rather than logic, Maradona was parachuted in as manager.
And although passage to South Africa was secured in dramatic circumstances, Riquelme felt alienated. In March 2009 he announced his retirement from the national team, citing irreconcilable differences with the most iconic No.10.
“We don’t think the same way and we don’t have the same code of ethics,” he said of his decision. “We cannot work together.”
Maradona persisted in trying to change his mind, but Riquelme stubbornly stuck to his convictions.
With Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso also excluded from the World Cup squad, Jonas Gutierrez lined up for the opening match instead.
They would go on to suffer another quarter-final defeat to Germany, but this time they were humiliated 4-0 as a lopsided team was cruelly exposed.
For someone of Riquelme’s game-changing ability, 48 caps, the last coming in 2008, was a meagre return.
It wasn’t the first time that Riquelme had fallen out with authority. By this point he was back at Boca Juniors, no longer the darling of Villarreal.
A reserved character, yet one who knew his worth to the team, he’d begun to take liberties that his performances no longer justified. Manuel Pellegrini and the club’s president, Fernando Roig, had finally had enough of his capricious nature, and he was dropped in January 2007.
He returned to Boca on loan, a deal which was made permanent in the summer. Riquelme’s brief but eventful European sojourn was over.
During his twilight years, he remained a hero at the club he had supported as a boy, before a final stint back where it all began, at Argentinos Juniors.
He retired in 2015, having helped them win promotion back to the top flight. A career of some regrets, but even fewer compromises, drew to a close.
Football was serious business for Riquelme.
Although his style of play delighted fans, he was notoriously solemn on the pitch. Not one to smile, he influenced games with studied concentration instead.
He was full of contradictions and a contested symbol in Argentina’s ongoing debate about how football should be played and the importance of the No.10.
The idealised playmaker made flesh, this was both his greatest strength and a terminal weakness.
By Sean Cole
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