By Kevin Koczwara
Juan Roman Riquelme made his debut for Boca Juniors 15 years ago. Since then, he has amazed the world with his talent, his creativity, and his homesickness. He’s the kind of creative player who can take over a game and silence crowds and critics alike with one touch of the ball. But he’s also the mysterious genius who wasn’t — for one reason or another — understood. He is a player who almost always seemed to butt heads with managers and directors , but that’s the way of the creative player who sees the game and plays the game differently than those around him.
Riquelme’s stand-out seasons came between the 2003/04-2005/06 seasons at Villareal. The Argentine midfielder was the maestro in the midfield for a misfit Villareal side that made its way up the La Liga hierarchy as the little fish that could.
At the end of the ’03 season, the Yellow Submarine was in 15th place and it was knocked out int he First Round of the Copa del Ray. It was just the fourth season Villareal was in the Spainish first division — its third consecutive season and fourth season at the top in five — and the team did well to stay up. At the end of the season, the club did well to bring in Riquelme from Barcelona, where his talents weren’t be appreciated or used on a regular basis after being brought in the previous season for a reported €11million. The two teams agreed on a two season loan for the Argentine midfielder, and Villareal and La Liga was forever changed.
In Riquelme’s second season (2004/05) with Villareal, he was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year award because of his displays in the midfield for a surging Villareal team that was playing beautiful soccer. With Marco Senna playing behind him and the likes of Diego Forlan — also considered a failure at the European club level before joining Villareal from Manchester United — in front of him, Riquelme thrived. In his first two seasons at the club, Riquelme helped the Yellow Submarine move up the table from 15th to 8th and then 3rd in 2004/05. It was a meteoric rise for a club that had spent much of its history in the doldrums of the Spanish Third Division.
The impressive performances kept coming for Riquelme. His vision and technique on the ball made him a prototypical playmaker, but his strength on the ball and ability to find pockets of space separated him from other midfielders. Riquelme is stronger than he appears on the ball and has been able to hold the ball against tough tackling opponents over the years because of his ability to keep the ball close to his feet with great technique. That mixed with his ability to pick a pass and open up defenses as well as hit tremendous free-kicks made him the complete player and an engine for the Villareal sides beating the likes of Barcelona, 3-0, on its day.
But the mad genius ran his course at Villareal and decided he wanted to return where it all began: Boca Juniors. It was after pushing the limits too far with his manager, Manuel Pelligrini, and the rest of the Villareal directors that he came to the realization that it was time to go home. To go back to Argentina, where it all started. And where he would be welcomed back with loving arms, even if he is difficult to deal with. even if he doesn’t like to train. Even if at times he doesn’t want to play. He knew he could go back and he did. And Boca Juniors was grateful then, and still grateful now, even if his time there is numbered because the genius has demands, and they can be tough to take at times, especially when he isn’t playing the inspired soccer everyone knows he’s capable of.
Similar troubles followed Riquelme to the Argentina national team. The elusive playmaker only played in one World Cup for his home country, 2006. He retired from international soccer after Argentina was eliminated from the World Cup by Germany, the host nation, in the quarter-finals on penalties. He captained the Argentina team to the 2008 Olympic Gold medal, playing as one of the three permitted players over the Olympic age limit. But that was the only medal he would win with Argentina. And it’s the only time he was able to shine for the team as its true playmaker and leader, sadly.
It’s a shame Riquelme wasn’t included in Maradona’s 2010 World Cup team, he could have been used to open up space for Lionel Messi and the rest of the potentially potent but eventually impotent attack for Argentina in South Africa. The team was missing a true midfield playmaker. If Maradona and Riquelme had seen eye-to-eye, who knows what would have happened. But they didn’t. And it cost both them one more chance at glory. One more chance to make their mythic statures in Argentine stand out even more than they already do.