Beware the Ides of March...
Julius Caesar upset plenty of high-up figures along the way to eventually taking charge of the Roman Empire. It's a story recorded in the annals of history, but in modern-day Argentina it's being re-enacted on the football pitch (and in the boardroom). The names of the personalities involved, granted, are a dream for the football writer who's also a fan of stretched analogies, but the plot has enough real intrigue to inspire Shakespeare, were he still around.
Julio Cesar Falcioni was appointed Boca Juniors manager in December after an impressive few years' work with Banfield. The man with the Roman name is known in Argentina as El Emperador ('The Emperor'), which ought to be a gift to headline writers across the country, because he's caused a hell of a fuss after dropping the one man who can claim near God-like status at Boca: a certain Juan Roman Riquelme, often known here by just his second given name.
Falcioni worked long and hard after arriving at Boca to secure the signature of the man who'd been his playmaker-in-chief at Banfield, Walter Erviti. There were questions asked about whether Erviti and Riquelme would be able to play together, and what kind of system Falcioni might be planning to adopt to fit both creators into his side. The idea that Erviti might actually be coming in because Riquelme seems physically incapable of playing two matches in a row at present got short shrift. After all, Boca managers don't drop Riquelme.
During the summer friendlies, Boca had by far the most impressive showing, without either of the two players (Riquelme was still injured, and Erviti didn't arrive until the very end of the transfer window). The side that claims the honours in the meaningless 'Summer Tournaments', though, often don't end up looking quite so impressive when the competitive action starts. Boca's cause wasn't helped by the inevitability of an only semi-fit Riquelme's return.
In the opening match of the Torneo Clausura, Boca hosted Mendoza's Godoy Cruz - featuring this year in the Copa Libertadores for the first time - and got thumped 4-1. Boca's only goal was scored by Erviti on his debut, but his celebrations were muted, given that it only made the score 1-3. Riquelme actually played pretty well, creating a good few chances and even hitting the post, but the next day Olé ran a poll on their website asking, "Was it Riquelme's fault Boca got beaten so badly?" As if an attacking midfielder could be to blame for his side conceding four goals.
During training the next week, Riquelme picked up a minor knock which ruled him out for the second round clash with Racing. Falcioni opted for a more defensive 4-4-2 formation without a dedicated playmaker, and Boca's midfield looked far more combative, even if Diego Rivero played awfully (eventually seeing a red card) and the team were ultimately lucky to win 1-0 away to a side also adjusting to the loss of an influential playmaker - in Racing's case Colombian star Giovanni Moreno, arguably the best player of the 2010 Torneo Apertura.
That win was ten days ago, and last week Riquelme was back in training. He announced to the press that he was fine, and would be starting against All Boys in La Bombonera on Saturday just gone. Riquelme had picked himself. He decided his role too. When asked whether he'd consider playing as less of a number 10 and more of a 5 - a deeper-lying, more defensive midfielder, still key to an Argentine side's passing pattern - Riquelme replied that; "I think the fans of Boca want to see Riquelme in the role he's always played."
And then Julio Cesar Falcioni did something that, for a Boca manager in the last few years, has been unthinkable. With Riquelme available for selection, Falcioni dropped him from the squad. On the day of the match Riquelme wasn't even in the stadium. With Falcioni still cautious after that opening day thrashing, even Erviti only played the last half hour of the game, as Boca limply edged towards a 0-0 draw (although they did have a legitimate goal disallowed for a phantom 'kick' on All Boys' goalkeeper Nicolas Cambiasso, brother of Esteban, just before half time).
Riquelme has talked about being unsure whether he was coming or going under Falcioni, and on Monday things got serious when Boca director Horacio Palmieri announced on radio that on Wednesday he'll resign his position and stand later this year for the Boca presidency against incumbent Jorge Amor Ameal. He claimed he's been displeased with "the direction the club is going" for a while, but also spoke out on Riquelme's situation. "Only a lunatic would drop Riquelme... I don't understand why he didn't feature against All Boys. They should at least have shown him some respect by giving him 45 minutes."
The fact that Riquelme has spent practically all of the last nine months injured is by the by for the majority at Boca. When he looked to have recovered initially, he was rushed back one match before November's superclasico with River Plate. The result? An injury after six minutes against River, a half-time substitution, and another long stretch on the sidelines.
Whether the decision was tactical on Falcioni's part, or whether he's trying to stamp his authority on a team and club in thrall to their own Roman ruler, it seemed sensible. Riquelme has been rushed back too many times, and has broken down each time. Boca simply haven't allowed him to reach full match fitness at his own pace. When available, fully fit or not, he has to play, and that's caused him even more problems.
The majority don't seem to agree with me, though. The Boca power struggle may continue for some time yet, if Falcioni survives until the Ides of March (or another two matches, to take him to the 15th). It's going to be fascinating seeing how it all plays out.