His number would be the defining number on the back of a generation. 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 Roman would discover that his father was a local gang member. Ten was the number that defined Riquelme; the number that made millions dream.
When Riquelme’ s feet touched the ball, one simply forgot the match clock ticking away because that is when even Father Time had the time to stop and watch the moments of Riquelme’ s genius. His feet quietly caressed the ball towards a fellow teammate. It never really was a kick. It was always more like a perfect stroke leaving the painter’s brush, slowly fading away. Just like his cardinal pass against San Lorenzo in 2000 hypnotizing the defense. Or, in other occasions, one always wished for the beauty to linger for a little more as the ball left his feet to kiss the far corner of the net with the goalkeeper either simply watching in helplessness or futilely diving in an attempt to save while the ball mocked past him. That was the Riquelme I knew.
Riquelme was the one who made the football talk – his feet scripted poetry, and the ball was his ink. It was this number 10 jersey that taught young, naïve, uneducated in football enthusiasts that football did not mean speed. He symbolised what football means for the Latin Americans – an art form. He grabbed the world by the neck and showed that you could have the world glued to your feet without running faster than the wind. People still believe in magic and magic is what he mesmerized the world with. Remember the reverse nutmeg on Mario Yepes in 2000 Copa Libertadores against the Millonarios which is still being discussed at a shady Buenos Aires pub being the greatest trick of all time? That was the Riquelme I knew.
It was Argentinos Juniors who played the most pivotal role in Roman’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 Roman’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.
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.
I knew Juan Roman Riquelme as the person who helped me love football because I wanted to, not because I was told to. After being baptized into football with the 2002 World Cup, Riquelme happened to me in 2006. The pitch was no more what the white lined boundaries indicated; the pitch was wherever Riquelme set foot. Riquelme with the ball was a casual stroll in the park. While admiring his artistic expertise working his way across the pitch with a certain tiny teenage boy worked as an accomplice in weaving poetry on the field, I knew that football would never ever be the same again. Riquelme gifted to me many nights of sleepless joy and sorrow to come. Clapping in joy, gasping in disbelief, crying myself to sleep, changing the course of an entire day in 90 minutes was never something I imagined I would let myself into. That was the Riquelme I knew.
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 Roman. 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.
With Barcelona holding a long-term interest in their man, clearly intent on re-establishing those ‘new Maradona’ links, Roman opted to move to Camp Nou. For what now seems like a bargain deal, the Argentine signed on for just £9 million.
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.
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 marginalized Roman, labelling him a “political signing”. Political signing or not, surely the talent was there to see.
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.
Cold chested Genius
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.
By now the Maradona comparisons had ended. Joining Roman in the sunny 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 Roman, which only my brother’s cooking could match. Roman was a potato specialist.
“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 ten 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.”
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.
While it hurts to accept that maybe another like him will probably never be, one cannot help but smile at the prospect of being on the same boat with him, as fans of football. Juan Roman Riquelme, thank you for the memories. Thank you for taking me on a ride with you, so what if it also had that penalty miss against Arsenal in 2006 which shattered your dream of being in Champions League final? Or you were just beyond any covetous dream as you did comment with sublime nonchalance
“I didn’t kill anyone. All I did was miss a penalty?”
Thank you for being there, standing tall, and reiterating the significance of class for me. Thank you.