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The Toe Poke
By ESPN Staff

Riquelme retires from international football

BUENOS AIRES, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Argentina playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme announced his international retirement on Wednesday at the age of 28, citing family reasons.

Riquelme, an elegant midfielder whose performances have split critics down the middle, said he had taken the shock decision because of his mother, who has been suffering from health problems.

'Since the World Cup, my mother has been taken to hospital twice and my responsibility is to take care of her,' said Riquelme.

'It was an easy decision to make. My family comes before the football,' said Riquelme, who captained the team which lost 3-0 to Brazil in a friendly this month, their first under new coach Alfio Basile.

'It will hurt me deeply not to wear the Argentina shirt again but my mother's health comes first,' said Riquelme, who quit the team at an age when most players are at their peak.

Riquelme said he feared criticism of his Argentina performances may have worsened his mother's health.

'There's been a lot of bad blood and I don't want to make her suffer,' he said.

'My mother is my mother and I can't compare her with the Argentina shirt or anything else.'

Riquelme, who plays his club football in Spain for Villareal, won 37 caps in an international career which spanned nine years.

Riquelme's admirers say he can control the pace of a game and prize open tough defences with his incisive passing. Critics say he drifts out of games and has been found wanting on the big occasion.

He was left out of the 2002 World Cup by coach Marcelo Bielsa but, four years later, he was the central figure in Jose Pekerman's team which reached the quarter-finals in Germany before losing on penalties to the hosts.

Although he played majestically in the opening games against Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro, against whom he was named man of the match after the 6-0 rout, he faded against Germany and was substituted.

Riquelme began his club career with Boca Juniors, before joining Barcelona in 2002. He failed to settle and moved to smaller Spanish club Villareal.

After winning the World Youth Cup with Argentina in 1997, he made his full international debut the same year.

However, he played intermittently until Pekerman took charge in October 2004.

Riquelme said he had told Basile of his decision. 'My duty was to tell him and thank him for picking me for the first game,' he said.

'It was a very short chat. I told him what I thought and he understood.'