As is the case with many South American footballers, we often just take up their story once they arrive on this side of the Atlantic. However, this does a disservice to the players’ careers and only tells some of their tale, as is the case with Juan Román Riquelme.
The former Argentine number 10’s standout qualities were his vision, passing, dribbling ability, dead-ball skills, and, of course, the fact his legs seemed to be made of steel. Watch him protect the ball from opponents, keeping a stable base with the lower half of his body, seemingly just allowing players to take aim at his two columns as he considered what his next move would be. You could kick and stab at those limbs with your boots and studs but Riquelme was not going to budge. With the footwork to match his imagination, there was many a frustrated kick aimed in Riquelme’s direction. The beauty was that he never changed.
Many who knew of Riquelme may have believed his fate to be written in the stars. Born the day before Mario Kempes and Argentina went on to win the 1978 World Cup in their homeland, his obvious talent was evident from an early age. However, his is not the tale of a happy childhood where his skills were nurtured by some surrogate Mr Miyagi. The young Riquelme knew of nothing but crime in his early years. Indeed, his father – his primary male role-model – was a known gang leader. Riquelme senior would force his brilliant young son to play in fixed matches which were arranged to fulfil the needs of local illegal gambling organisations. It was football that offered Riquelme a release from the shanty town surroundings in the suburbs of Argentina’s capital city.
Like Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia, Riquelme spent the formative years of his career at Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. The playmaker had impressed both Boca and River Plate while playing for the youth team at Argentinos Juniors in 1995. Riquelme made his first-team debut in the Argentinian Primera División in November 1996, going on to score four goals in 22 league appearances in that first season with Boca.
He would have to wait for two years before winning his first silverware with his beloved club, in the season that the young Riquelme made his real breakthrough and became considered a first-team regular. Thirty-seven league appearances and 10 goals helped Boca on their way to the 1998 Apertura title, and Los Xeneize also went on to win the 1999 Clausura.
Boca Juniors were a force to be reckoned with in the late 1990s. Manager Carlos Bianchi assembled an impressive squad featuring the likes of Oscar Córdoba, Walter Samuel, and all-time leading scorer, Martín Palermo. It’s certainly no coincidence (and no disrespect is meant to Palermo) that of the 13 years Martin Palermo spent at La Bombonera in his two spells, 10 of those years overlapped with Riquelme’s time at the club. Any forward would appreciate the talents of a playmaker such as Riquelme behind him. They would also have their goal tallies increased dramatically due to the service on offer from the number 10.
Boca’s rivals River Plate took charge of the Primera División the following season, winning the Apertura and Clausura titles in 1999/00. Boca did, however, eliminate River out of the Copa Libertadores at the quarter-final stage en route to lifting the trophy. Riquelme managed three goals in 16 appearances and was one of the most pivotal figures in that successful campaign. He also scored one of the penalties against Palmeiras of Brazil in the final shootout after the sides drew 2-2 on aggregate.
Riquelme and his teammates were back on form for the first half of the 2000/01 season, once again taking the Apertura title before losing out to San Lorenzo for the Clausura championship. Riquelme scored another 10 league goals, this time in just 27 games. He also helped Boca win their second Copa Libertadores title in a row, scoring three in 14 games and being named as the best player of the tournament. Again, Riquelme was called upon in the penalty shootout in the final, this time against Cruz Azul of Mexico, and once again he didn’t let Boca down. The rest of the football world was sitting up and taking notice of Riquelme’s talents now.
The 2001/02 season was Riquelme’s final one in his first spell at Boca. It was Riquelme’s most prolific term at Boca Juniors but they were denied any club success during his last term, with Racing and River Plate taking the Apertura and Clausura titles respectively. Boca also surrendered their Copa Libertadores title with a quarter-final exit to eventual winners, Olimpia of Paraguay.
Riquelme was signed by FC Barcelona in July 2002 for a reported fee of €10 million. Riquelme may not have decided to leave Boca but for the kidnapping of his brother just months before his move to Spain. He paid his brother’s ransom, ensuring his release, and claimed this was the final nail in the coffin which pushed him away to European football.
Little did Riquelme know he was arriving at a time of huge upheaval and transition for the Catalan giants. Louis Van Gaal was just in the door before him at Barcelona and had described the Argentine as a “political signing” early on. Riquelme, as with many talented and creative players, was often criticised for a lack of work rate – something Van Gaal was not willing to deal with, no matter what the positives would be for his Barcelona team. As it happened, Van Gaal was gone again the following January, with Radomir Antic taking over for the second half of Riquelme’s debut season in La Liga. Clearly, this was not an ideal situation for the young playmaker to find himself in during his first year away from his home country.
For the following two seasons, Riquelme was loaned out to Villarreal. Perhaps his Barcelona story would have read differently had he played under Frank Rijkaard who took charge at Camp Nou in 2003. It’s something we will never know. However, at Villarreal Riquelme immediately found comfort in his surroundings. Striking up an impressive understanding with Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan, Riquelme would go on to score 30 goals in 94 games during his first two seasons with El Submarino Amarillo.
Barcelona then signed Ronaldinho from PSG in 2005 which meant they had to let another one of their foreign players leave. It was decided that Riquelme could join Villarreal on a permanent basis. 15 goals in 51 more games followed over the next two seasons which included a fantastic surge to the Champions League semi-final – an achievement previously unheard of for Villarreal. Riquelme’s penalty miss against Arsenal in the semi-final the only blot on an otherwise superb campaign. It was in 2007 when Riquelme finally made his way back home to his first love.
Riquelme played his own part in forcing his way back to his beloved Boca Juniors. In somewhat of a standoff with Villarreal manager Manuel Pellegrini, and the board, he pushed for a loan move back to Buenos Aires in February 2007. He joined up with players such as Éver Banega, Rodrigo Palacio, and Martín Palermo, also in his second spell at the club. Riquelme made an immediate contribution to Boca’s success upon his return. They went on to win the 2007 Copa Libertadores with Riquelme, again, winning the Best Player award while scoring three goals over the two legs of the 5-0 final victory against Gremio of Brazil.
Riquelme’s loan move to Boca was finally made permanent in November 2007, and he was heading back to La Bombonera for good. At Boca Juniors, he continued to turn out on a regular basis for the first team right up until 2014. Two more Apertura titles were won in that time, in 2008 and 2011, as well as a Copa Argentina trophy in 2012. Best known for scoring screamers, and his dead-ball skills which were often incomparable to anyone else, Riquelme had scored 92 goals in 388 games for Boca Juniors over the course of his career.
In 2014, Riquelme stepped down a tier to where he started out, at Argentinos Juniors, as his footballing days came full-circle. It was the closing chapter on his career, a pilgrimage which had seen Riquelme etch his name into the history books at Boca Juniors and establish himself as one of the all-time club legends. He may have always appeared troubled, and homesick while in Europe, but there was no doubting the archetypal number 10’s genius. His vision, accuracy, and speed of thought, made up for any lack of physical pace. Riquelme’s close control also often made you question what you had just witnessed. The term “turning on a sixpence” springs to mind. Riquelme made his mark in the game before social media and viral sensations meant that one trick or top performance could make you a name in the world of football. He shone through when football was threatening to turn all of its focus to strong athletes who could simply run all day and carry out their manager’s basic instructions.
Riquelme was the exception to the rule – he broke the mould and helped keep our minds open to a world where players could still buck the trend with the strength of their brains, and not just their muscles. It’s imperative that we continue to recognise the brilliance of players like Riquelme, because who knows when the next one will come along?