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May 7, 2010

The end of a Roman empire?

"One of the greatest players in the history of Argentine football," was how one TV pundit described him a few weeks ago. It's a huge epithet to bestow on any player, but in the case of Juan Roman Riquelme, it might be justified.

Whilst his spell in Europe - first for Barcelona and then Villarreal - wasn't exactly laden with glory (bar an improbable Champions League run with the latter aside), he's been an enormous part of the reason Boca Juniors have been the most successful Argentine club of the 21st century so far. It's all the more historic then that on Sunday, he might just be bidding them farewell.

"Sunday could be my last match for Boca at La Bombonera," Riquelme told one of the country's main football TV shows on Monday. "Normally [given the current state of contract negotiations] I wouldn't go on the post-season tour with the rest of the squad."

To the uninitiated it would seem like a player very publicly using the media to help his contract negotiations, but after some of the goings-on at Boca in recent times, one has to wonder.

Also with a contract up for renewal, you see, is Martin Palermo. The hulking centre-forward is all but certain, barring injury, to be heading to South Africa as a member of Argentina's World Cup squad - the rights and wrongs of which are a subject for a whole different article. A few weeks ago Palermo became the highest goalscorer in Boca Juniors' history, and he owes a huge number of those goals to his team-mate Riquelme's creativity. The problem is, though, the two men aren't exactly the best of friends.

A thinly-veiled feud has been ongoing between the two for the last couple of years, and although it was one of the worst-kept secrets in Argentina for a long time, it came spectacularly into the open when Riquelme set up a goal for Palermo against Arsenal de Sarandí at the start of April. Whilst Palermo was mobbed by team-mates in front of the stands, Riquelme was jogging to completely the other side of the pitch to celebrate in front of the boxes which form one part of La Bombonera.

Afterwards, Riquelme claimed he hadn't wanted to celebrate in front of La Doce, Boca's infamous fans, with whom he's also had heated exchanges. All the same it seemed to be a metaphorical poke in the eye for the one (current) player who rivals Riquelme's popularity with the fans.

Palermo's not the only figure to have fallen out with Riquelme - there was the playmaker's retirement from international football over what he claimed was a 'different ethical code' to national team boss Diego Maradona, among other things - but he is by far the most prominent of the ones Riquelme's still got to play alongside.

A couple of weeks after that goal celebration against Arsenal, having sat out the intervening league match, Boca played a clásico against San Lorenzo. In the second half, Riquelme cut in from the left and played a ball into the centre of the penalty area which Palermo swept home first time to give Boca an unassailable 2-0 lead. This time there were no runs in opposite directions, just a long, tight embrace between the two. It wasn't quite 'When Gary Met Paul' in the Manchester derby, but it was an eye-opener all the same.

Since that match, there have been many calls for Boca's directors to make sure the feud is put to one side, but the fact that he's fallen out with La Doce as well means there's a sizeable minority of the club's own fans who have little love for this idol. Monday, though, was the first time Riquelme has come right out and said he fears he's on his way. If so, where might he go next?

The two most likely scenarios are that he'll either return to his first club, Argentinos Juniors, or move to Brazil. Argentinos would be a fascinating destination, not least because with two matches left in the Torneo Clausura they're still locked with South American champions Estudiantes de La Plata in an unexpected duel for the league championship. If Riquelme were to move to Argentinos, whether or not they end up winning the title, he'd be going to a club where he'd be guaranteed a hero's welcome, as a prodigal son, with an excellent chance of competing in next year's Copa.

That has to be a tempting option, because it's the Copa Libertadores which has furnished Riquelme with some of the best moments of his career - he's won it three times during a decade in which Boca have had four continental crowns in total. Argentinos are the only club who come close to challenging Boca in his affections - and they've produced many other legends, including Maradona himself, after whom their stadium is named - but some of the Brazilian giants with eyes on next year's Copa will also be bound to show an interest.

Although no clubs have been named, there are strong rumours that approaches have already been made to Boca for several players from Brazil, who are enjoying a strengthened role in the continent's transfer market with the continuing travails of currencies elsewhere in South America (among other factors). If Riquelme were to move abroad again, it would be fascinating to see how this notoriously unhappy traveller reacts to his new surroundings.

For now, Riquelme will continue to state that he hopes he can stay at the club where he's played for the last season for free as he promised when he returned from Villarreal three years ago. But after nine years split over two separate spells at the club he loves, he's painfully aware that Sunday's match with Huracán might be the last time he enjoys the adulation of any section of the crowd at La Bombonera - at least, whilst playing for the home team.

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