The 2007 Copa América was a glorious tournament for fans of Juan Román Riquelme – except, that is, for me. While Riquelme was giving arguably his best national team performances, scoring five of Argentina’s sixteen goals in the tournament and generally playing like a God among men, I was working a summer job in a factory in Suffolk.
As much as I wanted to, I could not bring myself to stay up into the night and watch Argentina’s games in case my resulting tiredness got me fired. Thankfully, an older and wiser co-worker was confident in his ability to get by on very little sleep and made sure never to miss a match. For the duration of the tournament, he was my go-to guy for Riquelme updates.
We would reconvene the morning after every game and he would tell me about Riquelme’s latest masterpieces, of which there were many. I still remember the descriptions of his free-kick against Colombia and his first goal against Peru, as well as those of the numerous pieces of skill he pulled off almost as a matter of principle.
I sat and listened, speaking only to ask for more detail so I could build clearer pictures in my mind, which I would then reimagine for the rest of the day. Once I’d heard everything there was to hear about the latest match, we would talk about how lucky we were to be alive while Riquelme was playing football.
A few weeks later, I moved to university and inevitably life went in a slightly different direction. A new age of fanaticism was about to begin.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that most of my friends at university were as obsessed with football as I was – the best of them was even a big fan of Riquelme. Nonetheless, the great man’s name was uttered rarely in comparison to the high school years – and with diminishing frequency.
Through the social side of university life, we found ourselves drawn to football more familiar than that in the Argentine Primera. The English Premier League was coming to its qualitative peak and the Union pub was the place to be when any big domestic game was on.
We watched any and all coverage of the Champions League and became interested in La Liga and the Bundesliga through the ESPN subscription we had in our second year. While we could conceivably have stayed up late to watch Boca as well as all the rest, it required a level of dedication that we simply didn’t have at that time.
For three years, Riquelme existed only as a memory, albeit one that was always present in the back of our minds. His remained the gold standard – the yardstick we used to measure the ability and ideology of the players we were watching. It probably seems ludicrous that we had ideological expectations of footballers and their styles of play, but we genuinely did. If I’m honest, I still do.
Players with intelligence, technique and, above all, flair were applauded; those who had primarily physical or pragmatic styles of play were scorned, even if they were undeniably effective. I lost count of the arguments we had with non-believers about the relative talents of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard – or, in our view, the lack thereof. They may have been dominating English football at that time but they were gormless hoofball merchants compared to our hero.
We spent hours with our old friend Football Manager but we had long since moved on from playing as teams for whom Riquelme would sign. Following a challenge from a friend, the two of us developed an unlikely and enthusiastic interest in Norwegian football, going so far as to make a trip between semesters to watch Viking FK and Rosenborg, the teams we had respectively managed.
Although Viking’s 0-0 draw with Lyn was ostensibly much less exciting than Rosenborg’s wild 1-1 with Odd, we enjoyed the former more. It was a match between two organised sides who aimed to keep the ball, playing short, clever passes and build attacks incrementally. We saw it as a match played in keeping with our Riquelmian ideas. Even though he was physically on the other side of the globe, our hero was with us in spirit.
I realise now that the Norway trip was a watershed moment. For the first time, I had gone somewhere improbable for my own esoteric reasons and two important lessons had been learned: first, that I loved travelling to new countries to watch and learn about football; second, that I found it really easy.
In my mind, the world shrunk dramatically. The number of possible destinations was seemingly infinite and I became desperate to go anywhere and everywhere. Over the next few years, I would go on to visit Barcelona (repeatedly), Lyon, Milan, Rome and Ljubljana to see or experience some aspect of the beautiful game.
While I regularly researched the costs and practicalities of getting to almost any country on Earth, one above all was always in my thoughts: Argentina. In addition to geographical variety that is more or less unique on our planet, a new language to learn and relatively cheap living expenses, Argentina offered one incentive that nowhere else in the world could even come close to matching: the chance to see Juan Román Riquelme play football.
By the time I finished university, making the pilgrimage seemed straightforward in my mind. Reality, however, presented a significant obstacle. In short, I was flat broke. I had no choice but to return home and take the first office job I was offered. Like most first-world twenty-somethings who stepped out of higher education and into a global recession, I struggled to get a job and all but gave up hope.
In economic terms, I thought, this was not a time to be making foolhardy voyages, spending thousands of pounds crossing continents and oceans and coming back with nothing tangible gained. I decided to keep my options open for as long as possible and see where life took me. Eventually, employment came my way and I focused on keeping my head above water. As the pennies came in, however, my dreams went out. I started to drift.
It was the best part of a year later, in the middle of the most non-descript day at work, that everything changed. Out of habit, I began my lunch break by opening up several football sites to get the latest news. I read the words ‘Boca Juniors confirmed for Arsenal preseason tournament’ and the world seemed to stop spinning.
After a decade spent dreaming of what it would be like to see Riquelme in person, after countless hours reading about Argentina and Buenos Aires and Boca Juniors, after all the saving up, budgeting and then saving up some more – and after having finally given up – it seemed utterly inconceivable that he was scheduled to play an hour’s drive south of our house. It was all I could do not to fall off of my chair.
After a few minutes, the shock passed and I began frantically messaging the members of our old high school Riquelme fan club, asking if anyone was up for seeing our idol. The first affirmative response arrived within seconds. I will never forget it, so perfect was it in expressing my feelings at that exact moment: “We have to go. Literally HAVE TO GO.”
Our number fluctuated over the next few weeks and finally settled at six. When tickets went on sale, I bought the closest to the Emirates turf available. There was no way we were going to watch Riquelme for the first time from anywhere other than pitchside.
When the big day came around, the fervour among our group was bordering on religious. We had talked of little else for months. One of my friends borrowed a DSLR camera from a relative so he could immortalise Riquelme Day in the highest possible quality. Another had travelled from Cardiff just to see him. As for me, I had barely slept due to a combination of excitement and residual disbelief.
We arrived at the Emirates Stadium several hours early and took our seats before the players from New York Red Bulls and Paris Saint-Germain, the two sides playing in the first game of the day, had begun to warm-up. Our impatience for them to get their match over and done with was palpable. Mercifully, the time passed quickly and they were soon gone. Then, after a short interval that felt like an eternity, Boca’s players emerged from the tunnel and we gazed upon the face of God.
We had our money’s worth before he had even finished his warm-up. Everything he did in front of our eyes, the first touch, the nonchalance, the weight of his passes, was textbook Riquelme. We got just as much joy out of the things he didn’t do – like run. I estimated that out of the ten or twelve steps he had to take as part of each ‘sprint’, no more than two or three could be classified as anything other than ‘strolling’. He was exactly as we’d hoped.
When the match began, we were all ready to be blown away by his genius. Sadly, the first half was a stark illustration of how European football had left him and his ilk behind. While Arsenal were the archetypal modern side – a collective of equally autonomous and interdependent creative players – Boca were an orchestra of ten plus one conductor.
The players that Arsenal were using to attack – full-backs, wide-midfielders and a striker – behaved totally differently in Boca’s system. They could barely do anything creative, least of all venture from their positions and try to score a goal, without Riquelme’s approval in form of a pass to them.
There were plenty of chances for these situations to develop, as every other Boca pass seemed to be to their playmaker. For the most part, however, their buildup was slow, predictable and disappointingly rudimentary. Too often Riquelme backed himself into a corner. Arsenal took control easily and it was no surprise when Robin Van Persie put the Gunners ahead after half an hour.
The first half played out like a hypothetical question brought to life: what would it be like watching a decent team from the 2010s against the best team from the 1980s? It was proof of stylistic evolution, which rewarded the neutral football fan in my head, but my heart was in pain. That is not to say it was a disaster: for the most part, we were glad simply to be watching Riquelme and occasionally he did something majestic that gave our sextet evident pleasure.
One perfectly-weighted through-ball to Lucas Viatri stands out, if only for what followed in the stands. One of my friends, Jake, was so intently focused on Riquelme that he did not realise that when the pass was played, Viatri was clearly offside. The linesman’s flag went up, the Emirates fell silent and Jake screamed “OHHH! FLAIR!” at the top of his voice.
While the first half gave us nothing to remember bar that moment of priceless comedy, the second was all that we had hoped for and more. I generally reject the idea that one player can single-handedly change a football match using nothing other than the force of his personality, but there was no denying the impact that a newly-motivated and focused Riquelme had on the game once Arsenal went 2-0 up.
Suddenly, he upped the tempo and began playing the incisive passes that he had until that point refrained from attempting. His direct opponent, Emmanuel Frimpong, was unable to cope. Again and again, Riquelme found space and played the right pass at the right time. Knowing the balance was tipping in his favour, he began urging his teammates forward. Before long Arsenal vs Boca Juniors was a distant memory: we were watching the Juan Román Riquelme Show.
Eventually, the pressure told. An error from the spooked Sébastien Squillaci allowed Riquelme to slip Viatri in to make it 2-1. A few minutes later, another of his through-balls split the Arsenal defence and confusion between Johan Djourou and Vito Mannone allowed Pablo Mouche to roll into an empty net for 2-2. Boca’s system may have been embarrassingly outmoded and ten of their players operating on a level below that of their opponents, but Riquelme’s brilliance had given them hope.
Disappointingly, both teams more or less shut up shop after the equalising goal. Aside from a few beautiful passes, Riquelme did not give us anything more to remember. Nonetheless, we left the Emirates ecstatic. He may have burned for half as long as in his heyday, but the flame was undeniably as bright as ever.
There was only one problem: now I’d had a taste, I wanted more. On the way home, I decided that no matter how long it took me to save up, I was going to Argentina for as long as possible and I was going to see Riquelme on multiple occasions.
It would be another two years before I arrived in Buenos Aires. When the chance to see Riquelme again presented itself – for Boca’s match away to Arsenal de Sarandí – I swore I would get to the game at any cost. That was just a figure of speech, of course: I didn’t really intend to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to see my favourite footballer. As it turned out, I would come closer to making good on my words than I could possibly have imagined.