Riquelme, Boselli, and Me

Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera is a stunning, swaying yellow-and-blue cathedral of football nestled in the tight streets of the wonderful Buenos Aires barrio of La Boca. Juan Román Riquelme, Carlos Tevez, Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Sebastián Verón, and countless other legends have all donned the azul y oro at one point or another during their career. The appeal of Boca Juniors is limitless.

I first went to Argentina in June 2008 and of course the stadium on Calle Brandsen was high on the wishlist. The trip was planned so that we’d be in Buenos Aires over consecutive weekends – with a short mid-week hop over the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay – to ensure seeing home games of both Boca and their eternal rivals, River Plate. Match tickets to both games were sourced, as well as stadium tours to La Bombonera and River’s El Monumental, for around £50: an unthinkable amount in today’s money.

I was specifically looking forward to seeing Riquelme in action, one of the most gifted players of his generation and Boca’s ultimate idol. I wrapped up to guard against the bitter evening chill of the Buenos Aires winter, hoping for a full, bouncing stadium to provide a remedy against the cold. Instead, we arrived to a half-full stadium, with a fairly muted atmosphere that belied everything I’d read, and all the videos I’d seen of this maniacal arena.

It turned out that Boca’s home tie against Arsenal de Sarandí was sandwiched directly between the Copa Libertadores semi-finals against Fluminense. This meant that several key players, including the iconic Riquelme, were rested and it seemed the majority of fans also decided to stay at home and put their feet up.

My mood wasn’t lifted by a goalless first half, and even less so when the visitors took the lead. Luciano Leguizamón, now plying his trade in the Argentine third tier, nodded in a cross after 46 minutes to put Arsenal in front. Luckily their joy was fairly short lived as twelve minutes later Mauro Boselli equalised after a good run into the box was followed by a deft first touch and a neat left-footed finish from 12 yards. After 74 minutes Boselli doubled his tally and put Boca in front with an accurate shot with his right foot from the edge of the box. With ten minutes remaining Boselli completed his hat-trick with a superbly athletic bicycle kick after a bit of pinball in the penalty area.

Boselli’s hat-trick amused me no end, especially as my mate had previously described him as a “carthorse”, a tag that fans of Wigan Athletic can no doubt sympathise with. Boselli began his career at Boca Juniors, joining the youth set up aged 14 although he was never able to establish himself in the first team. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Boca’s all-time leading scorer Martin El Titan Palermo was ahead of him in the pecking order. Only a month after his hat trick against Arsenal, the 23-year-old Boselli was sold to Estudiantes.

Depsite his career not taking off at La Bombonera, Boselli was an instant hit in La Plata. The forward scored 44 goals in 82 games in a two-year spell in La Plata, including the winner in the 2009 Copa Libertadores final.

It was his blistering form for Estudiantes that prompted Wigan to dispense with almost £7 million to bring the Argentine hitman across the Atlantic in 2010. However, the move would prove to be disastrous and in 2012 Wigan fans named him their worst ever foreigner in a poll ran by FourFourTwo magazine.

Boselli only managed five goals in 24 appearances for the Latics over a three-year period that also included loan spells to Genoa, Palermo, and former club Estudiantes. In 2013 he began somewhat of a renaissance following a €1.8 million move to Mexican side León. Boselli has scored 92 in 159 – a goal every 1.7 games – to help the Mexican’s to two domestic championships. His form has been so good there have even been rumours of a national team call up, although it appears unlikely the 32-year-old will add to his international tally of one goal in four caps.

Following my visit to La Bombonera in which Boselli scored a hat trick, Boca were subsequently eliminated from the Copa Libertadores at the hands of Fluminense and lost out to River Plate in the league. I’ve made several pilgrimages to La Boca and the stadium but a change in ticketing policies have proved prohibitive in recent years. Demand far outstrips supply meaning only members, and tourists willing to pay extortionately high ticket prices through agencies, can get you in to see a match at La Bombonera. The club are looking to imminently remodel the stadium, especially in the face of new FIFA rules dictating that it must be all-seater, in the hope of increasing the capacity to allow more fans to see the team in action.

Three years later I eventually got to see Riquelme play, and a little closer to home via a two-hour train journey from London. Riquelme featured for Boca against Arsenal in the Emirates Cup pre-season tournament. The magician set up both Boca goals in a 2-2 draw and although the game was reasonably meaningless at least it exorcised the demons of three years before.