I was about twelve when I first became aware of Juan Román Riquelme. I’d love to lie and say that I discovered him on late-night broadcasts of Boca Juniors matches; that I stayed up late to watch him humiliate Real Madrid in the 2000 Intercontinental Cup; that I had a cool Argentine uncle who told me all about a mythical enganche who moved in slow-motion but thought quicker than anyone else. Sadly, I can only tell the truth.
If memory serves, I first learned of Riquelme’s existence through Championship Manager 01-02. He and Martín Palermo could be purchased from Boca for a combined £20m or so and if you were at a club with the means to do those deals, you’d have been mad not to make them your top priority. Buying the two guaranteed a constant cavalcade of beautiful success.
Many happy hours were spent watching my Tottenham side, set up in a 4-4-1-1 with Riquelme in the number ten position and Palermo as the lone striker, relentlessly obliterate opponents. Of course, CM 01-02 had no actual visuals or match engine, only text commentary, so it was impossible to know how aesthetically pleasing the goals really were.
In a way, every goal scored on the game was as beautiful as one could imagine. I imagined that most of my team’s goals were amazing. Riquelme was the architect behind most of them.
In the summer of 2002, I was on holiday with my family. I do not remember where but I clearly recall the night we went for dinner in a pub that had a large TV screen on one of the walls. As soon as we walked in I noticed that they were showing live football. Having read about Manchester United’s participation in a newspaper earlier in the day, I recognised it as Ajax’s pre-season Amsterdam Tournament.
The match currently being played was Barcelona versus Parma and one guy in the famous blaugrana was running the show. His ball control was closer than anyone else’s; his passes more precise; his centrality to the game more fundamental. Parma’s players couldn’t get anywhere near him. After a couple of minutes, the pictures showed the name on the back of his shirt: Riquelme. That was that. I was transfixed.
I hadn’t been watching for long before Riquelme received the ball just behind Parma’s midfield line, turned, and sent a beautiful, sculpted drive into the top corner of the goal. My memory of the match ends there. That one moment of brilliance was so impressive that nothing else could force its way into my long-term memory bank.
One more memory of the night, though, endures: I remember being struck by the realisation that not only was the real-life Riquelme every bit as talented as the player I had on ChampMan – the one in the real world may have been even better.
Several of my friends had similar experiences around about that time. It didn’t take long for Riquelme’s reputation in our group to reach new heights. Over the next few years, we spoke about him almost constantly and always in a reverential manner. His failure at Barcelona was a blip, we decided: whatever had happened at Camp Nou, he was not to blame. He could not possibly be to blame.
We devoured any and all information about him. Columns and updates in FourFourTwo and World Soccer ensured that we knew all about his miraculous showings alongside Diego Forlán at Villarreal. We marvelled at Marca’s decision specially create a special award for ‘Most Artistic Player’ just for Riquelme. That he had to beat Ronaldinho to win it spoke volumes. This guy was genuinely special.
Thankfully, proof of his talent was easy to find. The increasing availability of broadband internet meant we could finally watch high-quality videos of him at his best, and we did so – over and over again. At home, we continued to play what had by then become Football Manager and each of us made signing Riquelme a prerequisite at the start of any new game.
2005-06 was a watershed season for British Riquelme fans. First, in November 2005, Argentina played England in Geneva, live on BBC1. Much to my delight, Riquelme picked England apart. Despite the fact that Sven-Göran Eriksson had started Ledley King in midfield specifically to mark him, Argentina’s number ten was the game’s dominant player.
Watching him humiliate England’s overrated duo, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, was particularly satisfying: by comparison, they were nothing – brainless athletes who would run all day but would never come close to having the same level of guile and effortless technical ability.
Unfortunately for Argentina, national team manager José Pekerman substituted his playmaker after eighty-four minutes and watched his side immediately collapse. With no-one on the pitch to organise and direct the midfield, there was a gaping void and England capitalised. The Albiceleste conceded two set-piece goals in the last four minutes to lose the game.
Riquelme returned to British screens within a few months, as Villarreal’s incredible showings in the Champions League saw them emerge as genuine contenders to win the European Cup. ITV’s weekly highlights package allowed British terrestrial viewers like me the chance to see him regularly for the first time. I made sure not to miss them.
If truth be told, El Submarino Amarillo were not the most watchable side ever to have played the game. They could be rigid, scrappy and unsportsmanlike, and their understandable focus on keeping goals out against teams with exponentially greater resources meant that they were, at times, genuinely boring. They played Manchester United twice in the group stage and nothing of note happened at all.
Nonetheless, their number eight could always be counted on to provide entertainment value. Riquelme’s showing at home to Internazionale in the second-leg of the quarter-final, in particular, was the stuff of instant legend.
Villarreal went into the match 2-1 down on aggregate but only needing to score once to progress on away goals. Under enormous pressure, Riquelme gave perhaps his definitive playmaking performance: perfectly dictating how and when to attack; structuring moves pass by perfectly-weighted pass; making all of his teammates’ difficult decisions for them. Villarreal won the game 1-0, with Rodolfo Arruabarrena heading home a Riquelme free-kick.
Pundits often say that a team’s playmaker is akin to a quarterback in American Football, given their tactical responsibility and subsequent tendency towards strategic thought. This comparison is usually fatuous but in the case of Riquelme against Inter it was entirely accurate. If John Elway is still dining out on the story of The Drive more than two decades after the event itself, then Juan Román Riquelme could probably make good on his performance against Inter for the rest of his life.
Of course, the semi-final against Arsenal was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Just as he had done against Inter, Riquelme played his opponents off the park but this time he ended the match as the villain, missing a decisive last-minute spot-kick and ensuring Villarreal’s elimination. Watching that penalty with four die-hard Arsenal fans only made my pain more acute.
If the events of the club season had not brought Riquelme genuine renown in British footballing circles, the 2006 World Cup in Germany certainly did.
Entrusted with the keys to the kingdom under Pekerman, Riquelme was Argentina’s best player throughout the tournament. A side built in his image routinely played excellent football and scored several breathtaking goals. One, in particular, ranks as one the greatest of all time: the twenty-four pass move finished by Esteban Cambiasso against Serbia & Montenegro during a 6-0 win.
It seemed that from the moment Cambiasso’s shot hit the back of the net, Argentina’s name was on the trophy. In terms of sheer talent, it was obvious that no-one could match them. Their starting eleven was ludicrous enough, and they even had the perfect trump card sitting in reserve: a shy teenager with unflattering long hair who went by the name of Lionel Messi.
The name on everyone’s lips, though, was Riquelme’s. The $64,000 question was ‘how do you stop him?’ It seemed pretty straightforward, after all: stop the playmaker and you stop Argentina. The reality, though, was that it was impossible. He was simply too good. Short of lacing his pre-match meal with ricin, there wasn’t a great deal anyone could do to prevent him from dictating and deciding matches in Argentina’s favour.
What no-one counted on was Argentina solving their opponents’ problems for them. Keen to preserve the fitness of his most important player for the seemingly inevitable semi-final and final, Pekerman repeated the mistake of the friendly against England, substituting Riquelme in Argentina’s quarter-final against Germany while his side’s advantage was only a single goal.
Inevitably, the host nation equalised within ten minutes and eventually won a penalty shoot-out. The 2006 World Cup’s best team, and arguably its best player, went home empty-handed.
It was around this point that things started to go wrong in Riquelme’s club career. Rumours abounded of behind-the-scenes power struggles between the playmaker and his manager at Villarreal, Manuel Pellegrini. Their disputes became increasingly public and the player’s behaviour less and less forgivable.
I remember reading Sid Lowe’s excellent piece in the Guardian detailing the ins and outs of the case of Villarreal versus Riquelme. Reading that my hero was skipping training, ignoring club appointments and refusing to be treated for his injuries – preferring instead to sweep the floor and polish his boots so as to further antagonise his adversaries at the club – was a blow that ranked alongside the missed penalty against Arsenal.
In February 2007, it was announced that Riquelme was leaving Villarreal and returning to Boca. He would not ask for a wage: he simply wanted to get out of Spain. It seemed unlikely that he would ever play in Europe again. Like everything he did on the pitch, Riquelme’s transfer had been swift and understated, but inescapably consequential. The greatest playmaker of his generation had simply picked up his ball and gone home.
My friends and I were devastated: just as we were reaching adulthood and gaining the freedom to travel and see him play, he was gone. I decided then that, whatever the cost, I would see Riquelme play before he hung up his boots – even if it meant crossing continents and oceans to do so.