In Buenos Aires there lies a neighborhood alongside the River Plate’s Estuary named La Boca, which translates to ‘The Mouth.” In this humble, working-class district you will find El Caminito, an alley littered with street Tango, steak houses and of course, la Bombonera – home stadium of the iconic Boca Juniors.
This neighborhood loves four things: Boca Juniors, The Pope, Diego Maradona and Juan Roman Riquelme.
Riquelme was a classic Argentinian number 10, an extremely creative playmaker. He was a maestro, had great talent and aptitude for the game. We believe Riquelme was closer to Maradona than Messi ever was.
He had supreme touch, creative and technical ability and made the players around him play better. Like every skillful Argentine footballer with the number 10, Riquelme was quickly designated as the “new Maradona.”
Barca coach Louis van Gaal, completely missed the point. Unfortunately, the philosophies between Riquelme and Van Gaal were just too incompatible. It’s rumored that on his first day in Barcelona, the Dutchman handed Riquelme a shirt for his newly born son, saying: “He’ll probably get to wear it more than you wear yours.”
To judge Juan Román Riquelme in this manner is like dismissing a painting simply because you don’t like the frame. It is to drive from France to Italy through the Alps, only to lament how the plane would have been quicker. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and unfortunately for Van Gaal, he had blurred vision.
What Riquelme represented was one of the last true number 10s. This number he inherited at Boca Juniors from Diego Maradona, whom he played with once in August 1997. Side by side, Argentinos Juniors did not have a chance.
Riquelme was a player blessed with majestic touch and vision, one who needed the freedom to play at his own pace and dictate play. It’s as if the team was built around him. That’s what Carlos Bianchi decided to do at Boca.
Through most of his career, Juan Román Riquelme seemed like a man out of time. In a game that was changing for more speed, more strength and physcial domination, he was different. He was the last classical number 10, enjoying the ball more than a sweat. Making his teammates shine more than looking for the accolades. By the time he established himself, his player type — classic number 10s — were almost extinct. He stayed in Boca until 2002, winning two Apertura titles and two Copa Libertadores trophies along the way.
As a diehard Boca fan, he opted for his favorite team. He made his Primera División debut against Unión de Santa Fe in 1996, and scored his first senior goal in a 6-0 drubbing of Hurracan two weeks later.
Regarded as one of the last genuine number 10s, Riquelme made the playmaker role his own, capable of picking the locks off the toughest defences with pinpoint passing and a level of creativity that only the rarest players possess.
Riquelme, who at the time was 34 years old, stated that he would be leaving the club as a result of not have enough energy left to continue. Riquelme admitted he would quit Boca as he had nothing more left to give because he was exhausted, and also signaled that he needed a break from football.
Riquelme’s failure to become the main man at Barca might have been the best thing that could have happened in his career. Unloved at Barcelona, he found refuge at Villarreal, where he was sent out on loan, and at the La Liga minnows he quickly established himself as the best playmaker in the world.
While at Barcelona he was criticized for being slow, lazy in defense and ineffective on the break, at Villareal, under Manuel Pellegrini, he was able to focus on the best qualities of his game. It was at Villarreal where Riquelme was able to establish himself once more like the player he had been in Argentina. Managed by Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini – the yellow submarine soon became an attacking force to be reckoned.
Now 27, the 2005/06 season saw Riquelme take Villarreal to the semi-finals of the Champions League. An enigmatic character, Riquelme would eventually fall out with Manuel Pellegrini and move back for a second spell at Boca Junior in 2007 where he would win a further Libertadores and remain until his retirement in 2014. Unfortunately, Roig’s premonition would become reality. After returning to Boca in February 2007, Riquelme never played in Europe again.
Spain’s loss was very much Argentina’s gain. Within five months Riquelme had won his third Libertadores.
In 2006, Riquelme played in his first and only World Cup. After the World Cup, Riquelme’s bad habits saw him slowly lose his place in the team. In 2007, he was loaned back to Boca for five months, just in time to participate in the Copa Libertadores.
“If we have to travel from A to B, most of us take the six-lane highway & get there as quickly as possible. Everyone, except Riquelme.
He’d choose the winding mountain road, which takes him six hours, but that fills your eyes with scenes of beautiful landscapes.”
Jorge Valdano, Former Argentina Forward
During the tail-end of his career, he remained a hero at the club he had supported as a boy, before he plucked up the energy to enjoy one final stint back where it all began, at Argentinos Juniors.
Riquelme’s style of play was always a delight to fans, yet he was notoriously quiet on the pitch.
He never smiled and instead made his mark on games with studied concentration.
During his many years as a player, his temperament alienated managers and players alike. “I never believed in tactics”, Riquelme would say. “Football is very simple. If you play well, if you play better than your opposition, then you have more chances of winning. It’s other people that want it to look more complicated.”
But one thing’s for certain, the Argentine hero will live long in the memory of the beautiful game.
CHECK YOUR FOOTBALL RESULTS