Riquelme returns to his roots
There's no rest for the wicked in Argentina; just over a fortnight after the national side's appearance in the World Cup final, the Primera División kicks off a week on Friday. For the first time in a long time, Argentina's top flight will be without arguably its biggest star: Juan Román Riquelme is dropping down a division.
Rumors of Riquelme's exit from Boca Juniors, where he's regarded as one of the club's all-time idols, have been a familiar feature of the Argentine transfer market for years. Seemingly every winter -- and from time to time in the summer as well -- we've read countless stories of contract negotiations dragging on, and on, and on.
We've heard of a board that doesn't want him at the club, of a huge fan base that very much does (an important factor in Argentina, where club boards are voted for by club members), of a manager who says this or that, of teammates who hope he stays ... and every time -- normally late in the day and, on at least one occasion, after the expiry of his previous contract -- Riquelme has stayed at Boca.
So it's something of a shock to find that in the one transfer window during which this saga was well and truly overshadowed -- by Argentina's run to the World Cup final in Brazil -- Riquelme's exit from the club has actually come to pass. Many were reconciled to him still occupying the No. 10 shirt for Boca in his old stage, being trotted out for key matches when he needed a walking stick.
Less of a shock, though, is that having finally made the break, he chose to head to Argentinos Juniors. It might seem odd to those outside Argentina, but there are two clubs here that could hope to compete with Boca for Riquelme's affections. Those are Tigre -- the club he grew up near and still lives near, and of which he's a lifelong fan -- and Argentinos, whose youth system produced Riquelme among a long, long list of successful products.
That list includes a certain other famous former Boca No. 10, although unlike Diego Maradona -- who played for Argentinos for five years before moving to Boca, and remains the club's all-time top scorer -- Riquelme moved to Boca without playing for Argentinos' first team. Given Argentinos fans' rightful pride in their reputation for producing great players, it's not hard to see why the atmosphere around the club is one of excitement at their prodigal son's return.
Riquelme's ability is still there -- despite fitness issues in recent years, he has lost none of his speed of thought or vision, and he is still capable of decisive moments in the Argentine top flight, in which matches are frequently tight and decided by a flash of genius or luck either way. Riquelme's arrival is also a boost to the club for other reasons. He's dropping down a division to join Argentinos after they were relegated to the second division in May and are in sore need of a pick-me-up.
I was at Argentinos' game the day before other results decided their fate with one round of the championship to go. The mood around the club when they went down was of frustration rather than anger. That's partly because the fans realise they're not a big club despite some impressive achievements (which include a Copa Libertadores and three top-flight titles, the most recent in 2010), and partly because it seems probable they'll be back in the top flight within half a season.
The Argentine league is being restructured so that starting next February, it will move to a more traditional year-long season, and the Primera División will be made up of 30 (yes, 30) teams. To bring about that increase, this half-season's second division campaign will see the division's 22 teams divided into two groups of 11, with everyone playing everyone else home and away within their group. At the end of it all, 10 sides (the top five from each group) will be promoted to the newly expanded Primera.
As such, it's questionable whether Argentinos needed to bring in too much quality in order to get straight back up, although a shake-up of some sort was certainly needed with so many players playing badly last season. Riquelme has been supplemented by Cristian Ledesma -- who just won the first-division title with River Plate -- and Universidad de Chile centre-back Matías Caruzzo. All three are former Argentinos players, and all three have experience that will be of huge benefit to the club's many younger players.
As for Riquelme's relationship with his former boss? At Riquelme's unveiling on Sunday, he pointedly refused to say anything about Boca manager Carlos Bianchi, though Riquelme's father afterward claimed in Ole, "Román didn't have Bianchi's support." There have been no such problems with Riquelme's new manager: Riquelme on Sunday described Argentinos boss Claudio Borghi as "the best manager in the world" ; Borghi has claimed, somewhat colourfully in the past, that his new signing is "like nothing else on Earth."
In a way, Riquelme finally leaving Boca might be a blessing in disguise for them. It will force the club to finally move on from an era in which their play was increasingly reliant on a man who wasn't physically fit to appear on a regular basis in recent years. Perhaps now, with ties to the past decade cut (apart from Bianchi as manager), Boca can begin to look forward.
For Riquelme, too, this is a new start. Eighteen years after leaving, he'll finally make his Argentinos debut. In a few months' time, maybe the 36-year-old will be leading them back into the Primera.