Riquelme may find the Corinthian spirit
Big, 'everyone welcome' birthday parties are often memorable, and Brazil will see one next year. September 1, 2010, sees the centenary of one of the country's biggest clubs, Corinthians and, to celebrate, the directors of the São Paulo side want to give their team and its fans a special present. The club who made so many headlines in 2005 when they signed Carlos Tevez are going back to where they bought him from in an attempt to bring in a huge name: Juan Román Riquelme.
The relationship with MSI, the investment group which took Tevez and Javier Mascherano among others to the club, has long since ended, but having spent 2008 in Série B of the Brazilian championship, Corinthians are getting used to their place back at the top table. The country's mammoth media conglomerate Globo claim on their website that Corinthians want to bring in Riquelme to aid their push for the Copa Libertadores in their centenary year. Having qualified for the Libertadores early by virtue of claiming the Copa do Brasil, they can start their planning even though the league still has four matches to run.
That trophy, the first at national level (not counting last year's second division title) since the Tevez-inspired 2005 Série A championship, has come largely off the back of a big-name signing the club already made. At the beginning of the year, as you may recall, Ronaldo made the controversial decision to turn down his boyhood club, Flamengo, and sign for Corinthians. It was a move that, given O Fenômeno's previous problems with weight and motivation, could have gone either way, and it's ended up going really rather well.
Twenty-two goals in all competitions (11 in the league) might not be as good as the veteran Flamengo ended up with - Adriano leads the Série A scoring charts on 18 - but, considering Ronaldo had time out injured, it's a better return than many expected. The striker still carries more weight than he should, but he's scored some brilliant goals, including one on Saturday in a 2-0 win over Santo André with a smart turn and powerful shot from outside the penalty area.
The thought of Ronaldo being joined in Pacaembu by Riquelme is tantalising, but the Brazilian club's ambitions could be compromised by Riquelme's commitment - personal as well as contractual - to Boca. The playmaker was so grateful to his former club for pulling out all the stops to 'repatriate' him from his hellish last season at Villarreal that he agreed to play the third season of his contract without being paid. That 'free' season is now well underway and, if Riquelme jumps ship halfway through it, he'd better have a good excuse. Boca's fans have a high opinion of him, but that could change if he went back on his word.
That word is clear - for the moment. Riquelme told Argentine sports daily Olé: "I won't think about my future until my current agreement runs out [next June]." That could change if Boca are willing to talk to Corinthians, though. Boca have had a torrid time on the pitch in 2009, eliminated from the Copa Libertadores by relative minnows, in the form of Uruguay's Defensor Sporting, and are a long way off the pace domestically in spite of having claimed the Torneo Apertura 11 months ago.
Off the pitch, things haven't been all fun and games, either. Mauricio Macri, mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, got into his current job by taking advantage of the publicity afforded by his presidency of Boca during their hugely successful years earlier in the decade. He talked on Monday about his "worry that the club has signed off the club's accounts with a deficit for the first time in 12 years". That could very well be Macri seeking political points by reminding people that things were better under him, but it's a reminder that Boca, for so long financially well run compared with Argentina's other clubs, might not be in a position to hold on to a player if a foreign club comes calling.
They could be even easier to persuade because Riquelme has hardly been in sterling form in the last season-and-a-half. In fact, compared with the performances that swept all comers away as the club claimed their most recent Copa Libertadores, in 2007, he's been a shadow of his former self. And yet in spite of their Copa elimination to Defensor Sporting, Boca - and therefore their main creative fulcrum - still hold something of a sway over the imaginations and fears of Brazilian sides in the continental competition.
When he's on song, Riquelme is capable of inspiring his team in the same way Juan Sebastián Verón did for Estudiantes as they claimed this year's Copa, and it's some of that magic dust that Corinthians hope to capture. The Copa itself could be a powerful bargaining chip, because Boca's form throughout 2009 has been so bad that, at present, they're struggling against the odds to even qualify for the competition they've had so much success in over the last decade.
Riquelme could join a compatriot in the form of Matías Defederico, a 20-year-old who was part of the Huracán team that so narrowly missed out on Argentina's Clausura championship in July. Defederico, handed the No.10 shirt, has been in and out of the team since his controversial arrival, playing well in patches but still needing to beef up. Riquelme, if he signs, will surely be a regular. And providing throughballs for one player who certainly doesn't need any extra bulk should make Corinthians' next Libertadores campaign a memorable one, whatever the result.
The biggest obstacle could well be Riquelme's near-legendary homesickness - memories of his unhappy spells at Barcelona and Villarreal linger - but if the move does come to pass, the sight of Riquelme laying on chances for Ronaldo could be a spectacular gift for Corinthians on their 100th birthday.