Juan Roman Riquelme: The master of his art will be missed by Argentina
Towards the end of 2001, a tribute match for Argentine legend Diego Maradona was staged at Boca Juniors' famous stadium, La Bombonera, in Buenos Aires. The spectators included then-Argentina national team coach Marcelo Bielsa, who was roundly booed. However, the fans' ire had nothing to do with any falling out between Bielsa and Maradona, but rather the fact that the coach had no place in his team for Juan Roman Riquelme, the playmaker and idol of the Boca side of the time -- who announced his retirement from the game on Sunday.
Characteristically, Bielsa (whose nickname is El Loco) loved his hostile reception. "It is the essence of football," he said. But the dispute over the worth of Riquelme was at the heart of a debate between different schools of the game in Argentina.
Bielsa, currently in charge at Marseille after impressive work with Chile and Athletic Bilbao, was strongly influenced by the all-action dynamism of European, and especially Dutch, football. Riquelme, meanwhile, carried the banner for an old-style Argentine game. He was not much of an athlete, but very few have moved the ball with as much elegance and intelligence. With an unhurried style that always saw him in close control, Riquelme was a master of the art of passing.
One of the early opponents of boxing legend Muhammad Ali came up with a superb description of the deceptive nature of Ali's punching: "Things went fuzzy gradually all at once." Many opponents may have come to the same conclusion about facing Riquelme. His passing may have seemed to be chipping away inoffensively until suddenly he had left the defensive line in tatters.
In an age of bustle and haste, Riquelme was a throwback to a different time and one could easily imagine watching him in the crackling black-and-white of an old TV screen. Now that the playmaker's exploits have been confined to history, the coverage the news has gained across the footballing world is evidence of one of the elemental truths of the sport, all too frequently overlooked: Football is never just about "what"; it is much more about "how."
Many players have won more titles than Riquelme -- though he did pile up five Argentine titles, three Copa Libertadores trophies, and an Intercontinental Cup triumph over Real Madrid in 2000, with Boca -- and his retirement is not being mourned because of the silverware he collected. Rather, his decision to call time on his career is noteworthy because it robs us of a player who was always true to a certain type of football. And who, winning or losing, turned every match he played into a statement on the value of that style.
Of course, Riquelme was not to everyone's taste. Bielsa left him out of the Argentina side; Louis van Gaal found it hard to accommodate him at Barcelona (which makes one wonder why the club chose to buy him in the first place). But a coach willing to build the side around him -- and with Riquelme "my way or the highway" was usually a tactical and philosophical necessity -- could secure some truly memorable results. Indeed, under Carlos Bianchi at Boca, Manuel Pellegrini at Villarreal (until they fell out), Alfio Basile and especially Jose Pekerman with Argentina, Riquelme produced some football which will remain for decades in the memory of those sufficiently privileged to have seen it.
My personal favourite memories of Riquelme come from the 2004-06 period with the national team. After Bielsa resigned, Pekerman, who had helped to shape Riquelme at under-20 level, took over. The playmaker was not only brought into the team, he was made the focal point of all of Argentina's midfield. And, given a position of such trust, he blossomed.
Argentina's home matches were played at the El Monumental stadium of Boca's great rivals, River Plate, but the beauty of his football appeared to transcend club rivalries and, with the entire stadium roaring their approval, over the next few months Riquelme passed holes in the likes of Uruguay (4-2, twice) and Brazil (3-1) and was awarded the Silver Ball at the 2005 Confederations Cup as the tournament's second best player before finishing joint-14th on the shortlist for the Ballon d'Or at the end of the year.
Yet the year of 2006 will certainly go down as the "nearly" moment of Riquelme's career as he carried Spanish side Villarreal to the last four of the Champions League; an extraordinary achievement by a club from such a small town. After Arsenal won the first leg of their semifinal 1-0, the second was tied at 0-0 when Riquelme was handed the chance to force extra-time with a last gasp penalty. But his kick was saved by Jens Lehmann and Arsenal went to the Paris final instead. Later Riquelme told the Arsenal website: "It was one of the saddest memories of my career and one I will always remember."
Just a couple of months later came his controversial substitution in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal against hosts Germany. Riquelme's corner had set up a goal for Roberto Ayala, but his influence was declining and Pekerman elected to take him off, although a couple of later injuries then meant that he was unable to introduce the teenage Lionel Messi. The Germans equalised in the 80th minute through Miroslav Klose with one of the very few chances they created, and went on to win the penalty shootout 4-2 with Lehmann once again thwarting Riquelme's dream (although this time it was Ayala who erred from the spot.)
The game turned out to be Riquelme's final appearance in a World Cup -- he missed the next one after falling out with then-coach Maradona -- but he ended his international career on a high by claiming a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, as one of the three over-23 players.
Argentina managed no senior titles during his playing days, but there is one moment from that lone World Cup which will forever be remembered by those who love the game.
Argentina's second match was against a Serbia side which had hardly conceded a goal in qualification. It ended in a 6-0 rout, and the crowning moment came with Argentina's second goal. Riquelme was at the centre of a 24-pass move, the ball moved around with a hypnotic rhythm that entranced the opposing defence, until the line was pierced and Esteban Cambiasso scored one of the most stunning team goals in the history of the competition. It was a 30-second summary of football the Riquelme way.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.