Brains over brawn: Juan Román Riquelme’s style divided opinion, but his talent was plain to see

Juan Riquelme

Silverware often guarantees greatness and a player’s position in football folklore, but a lack of thereof does not necessarily tarnish a claim to the same status. A romantic player whose beauty is not matched by his universally recognised decoration is one who will, arguably more than any other player, show why the ‘beautiful game’ is adored around the world.

Juan Román Riquelme gained supporters and critics in equal measure as he rebelled off the pitch and stayed true to his pace and style on it through his club career and for Argentina – his seemingly lethargic manner and selfish desire for the ball was not for everybody, but he is one of the most emblematic wearers of the iconic number 10 shirt. Riquelme was an otherworldly, often unappreciated, genius that was one of the last of a generation.

He was born in a poor, shadowed shanty town the day before Argentina won the 1978 World Cup. His dad was a local gang leader, who forced him to play in fixed junior matches to satisfy the illegal gambling rings in the area.

He was saved from a life of crime when he was spotted by Argentinos Juniors, who are based in La Paternal in the country’s capital, Buenos Aires. The club’s famous youth academy, aptly nicknamed ‘The Cradle of the Stars’, played the most important role in Riquelme’s development. He was slight, shy, and suffered from chronic fatigue at an early age; Juniors’ coaches helped nurture their future star.

Boca Juniors enticed Riquelme, who was a boyhood fan, to make the move across Buenos Aires in 1996 at the age of 18. His on-off affair with the club he loved was to span almost twenty years, which helped him to etch his name in a long, prestigious list of club legends.

Riquelme’s arrival at La Bombonera triggered almost instant success. His creative and unique style positioned between midfield and attack helped Boca to six trophies between 1998 and 2001, including two Copa Libertadores titles – Riquelme was presented with the Argentine Footballer of the Year award in 2000 and 2001 for his efforts.

Though success was tangible for Boca’s fans, what could not be touched was Riquelme’s brilliance. His movement, control and finesse left fans in awe. His return of 44 goals in 194 games in his first spell at Boca between 1996 and 2002 says very little about his impact at La Bombonera. The fact that many of his goals were outstanding works of art, which included long-range thunderbolts, free-kicks and clever flicks, often goes unnoticed.

That, in Riquelme’s mind, meant that he deserved to be paid the most money in Boca Juniors’ history – sadly for him, his boyhood club did not share the same sentiment. But, having had some of the world’s biggest clubs demanding his signature for much of his professional career, Riquelme was not short of suitors in Europe. He chose Barcelona, and signed for £9 million in November 2002.

He was moody, and needed to be loved – his mother became incredibly ill and his brother was kidnapped by a gang back in Argentina, which required a public cry for help (and a lot of money) from his famous sibling to save him. He needed to be labelled as the biggest cog in a free-flowing attacking system, as the creative star in a fearless and bold side but most of all, he needed to feel appreciated. His talent needed to be valued; Riquelme chased the satisfaction that his unquestionable football talent was being justly rewarded. Unfortunately Louis van Gaal, who was Barcelona’s manager at the time, could live without the enigma that was Riquelme.

He needed his ego constantly massaged, and when results fell below par, van Gaal decided that there was no time to integrate his summer signing. Critics piled into Riquelme; he was nicknamed ‘pecho frío’,  which literally means cold-chested, and is an insult aimed at horses unwilling to pull a heavy cart. The phrase is often used in South American football circles to describe players who go missing during big games or fail to give the impression of making much of an effort.

But in truth, the haters were partly correct. Riquelme was never the man to be trusted to hurry the opposition, and he rarely closed down space or tracked back to help his defence; his ability was without doubt, which even the most anti-Riquelme fans would admit, but van Gaal demanded that the Argentine pulled his weight and bombed up and down the pitch as a winger.

With his stint in Barcelona effectively ended by the signing of Ronaldinho – who took Barcelona’s non-EU count over the limit – Riquelme looked for pastures new. Specifically, he desired a club that would show him the same love and affection he had felt at the start of his career. Villarreal’s manager Benito Floro jumped on the chance to sign Riquelme, and provided him with the perfect opportunity show the Blaugrana what they were missing.

It was at the Estadio de la Cerámica that Riquelme blossomed. Manuel Pellegrini replaced Floro as the club’s manager; the Chilean built his side around Riquelme, and made him the team’s most important player, which was spearheaded by Diego Forlán in attack.

It was easy for Barcelona’s management, and fans, to criticise Riquelme for not pulling his weight in Spanish football, but he was misread – he dictated ganes, whilst the mere mortals around him did the legwork. Genius is a word that is bandied around football all too often these days, but Riquelme’s prodigious talent was worthy of such a label. Inspired by his brilliance, Villarreal finished 3rd at the end of the 2004-05 La Liga season – the Argentine was awarded the Most Artistic Player title by leading Spanish newspaper Marca, and was nominated for the 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year award.

A season later, Villarreal reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, where they lost to Arsenal. Riquelme heartbreakingly saw a penalty saved by Jens Lehmann in the second leg, which would have taken the tie to extra time.

However, Pellegrini had been rewarded for the faith he had shown in his superstar, and nobody blamed Riquelme for the defeat – under Pellegrini’s stewardship, Riquelme grew into one of the world’s greatest creative midfield players. Pellegrini packed the Villarreal team with Argentineans, never questioned Riquelme’s ‘injuries’ and resulting absences from training and made him an ever-present in the starting XI, regardless of his physical condition. If Riquelme wanted to play, then he was afforded to do so; he was never demoted to the substitutes’ bench in his final two years at Villarreal.

In May 2006, Zinedine Zidane bid farewell to club football after a glittering career. His last league match was an entertaining 3-3 draw playing for Real Madrid against Riquelme’s Villarreal at the Santiago Bernabéu; after the full-time whistle, Zidane immediately embraced Riquelme, and swapped shirts with the Argentine, before leaving the field for the last time. Few players have garnered such lofty praise from his peers as well as his fans, but Riquelme deserved it – Forlán said that he was one of the main reasons that he moved to Villarreal in the first place, despite barely knowing him on a personal level.

In February 2007, after a difficult start to the 2006-07 season in Spain, Riquelme returned to Boca Juniors. The transfer represented a sad passing of one of South America’s most graceful players. Times were changing, and even Pellegrini had little patience for a player that played by his own rules.

Many cling on to Riquelme’s lack of trophies as a measure of his success, but what is undeniable is that his often sulky tone brought smiles to millions. The ‘second inventor of football’, as described by prominent Argentinean football writer Horacio Pagani, was an embellishment to every side he blessed with his ability.