It was anthropologist Eduardo Archetti who perhaps summed it up best, concluding that Argentinian football is defined by unbridled spontaneity as a result of being developed in opposition to the British game. While British football was regimented – taught in school and reliant on power and structure – Argentina’s economic and social standing didn’t allow for such a formulated, top-down approach. Instead, many children would learn the game through playing in the streets or on potreros, abandoned lots in the neighbourhoods of major cities.
These patches of land, similar to the huddled futsal courts hidden in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, take on a mythical, almost anthropomorphic significance in defining what it is to be a player that embodies the Argentinian game. They are not only the physical space on which kids learn the game; players are imbued with their essence, merging the weathered dirt pitches and rusted goal frames with pure technical ability. Few have come to symbolise this transformative process more aptly than Juan Rámon Riquelme.
Even by the standards of the stereotypical rags to riches story, Riquelme’s discovery is as remarkable as it is shocking. Born the eldest of eleven just north of Buenos Aires in San Fernando, his immense talents were first noticed by scouts while playing on the local potreros in games set up by his father, a local crime lord, to earn money through illegal gambling. From there, he was picked up by Argentinos Juniors, and in 1995, still just a teenager, he made the big move across town to Boca Juniors. From there, his career began what seemed like a linear trajectory to superstardom.
It wasn’t that Riquelme was hyper skilful or fleet of foot; on the contrary, at times he appeared almost ungainly. His long legs, slow, deliberate strides, and hunched shoulders betrayed a supreme first touch and an array of the deftest turns and feints. However, his most vital gifts were his vision and awareness, his hypersensitivity of what was around him. At any moment, he was able to evaluate a situation and pick the right option with a minimalist ease and beauty that often defied reason. Could football really be that simple?
It was that innate sense of efficiency and timing that, very early on, singled out Riquelme as the next great Argentinian number 10. Under the management of José Pékerman, he enjoyed a hugely successful international career at youth level, winning multiple team and individual awards. The pair would later reconnect at senior level, with Pékerman becoming one of the playmaker’s greatest admirers and, at times, defenders.
See, it is hard to find shades of grey with Riquelme. You are either drawn to his magnetic, mesmerising play like a moth to a flame, or completely turned off by his lack of work rate, average athleticism, and morose on-field persona. Those vast gaps between his strengths and weaknesses also put pressure on coaches throughout his career. Riquelme wasn’t a player who could simply be accommodated; he had to be built around, the centrepiece of a team designed to hide those flaws when out of possession, and designed to revolve around him with the ball. It is a lot to ask, and that challenge excited and repelled coaches in almost equal numbers.
Still, his early career was relatively drama-free, and he quickly graduated to Boca’s first team, making his debut at just 18. Over the next few years, he would become the heartbeat of the team, frequently displaying another of his remarkable talents. For all the criticism Riquelme received for his demeanour on the field, which tended to range from melancholy to flat out disinterested, he had the footballing charisma to bend the pace and tempo of a game to his will.
Following seven years and six major trophies, the timing felt right for Riquelme, now approaching his prime, to make the transition to the bright lights of Europe. However, the crime-riddled childhood Riquelme had left behind was to catch up with him shortly after the confirmation of his move, as one of his brothers was taken hostage. Later, once a ransom was paid and his brother freed, Riquelme would reveal the event expedited the transfer.
While the traumatic episode must have made Barcelona all the more appealing, Riquelme quickly found Catalonia to be less hospitable than first hoped. This was primarily down to the indifference with which Louis van Gaal greeted his new charge, dismissing Riquelme as a political signing, and playing him out of position on the wing. Following one uninspiring season and the signing of Ronaldinho, a loan to the less glamorous Villarreal was arranged. There, though, chiefly under the guidance of Manuel Pellegrini, Riquelme was once again allowed to reprise his role as conductor-in-chief. Following a historic third-place finish in 2005, Villarreal made the move permanent and were repaid when Riquelme’s genius, combined with a solid defence and the lethal Diego Forlan, directed the Yellow Submarine on a fairy tale run to The Champions League semi-finals.
There they would face Arsenal, another side built on solid defence and individual brilliance, in an extremely tight tie that would see Arsenal take a 1-0 lead to El Madrigal. With the game goalless and time slipping away, Villarreal were awarded a penalty when Jose Mari was bundled over by Gael Clichy. Up stepped Riquelme, only to have a tame penalty saved by Jens Lehmann.
There was a chance for personal redemption almost immediately, though, and a reconnection with Pékerman at the 2006 World Cup. Once again, the veteran manager indulged his star pupil, making Riquelme the centrepiece of one of the most attractive national teams in recent memory. A sparkling group stage was highlighted by the goal of the tournament in a 6-0 thrashing of Serbia. Scored by Esteban Cambiasso, and rightly lauded as a perfect team goal, it was infused with the DNA of its star. Not only did Riquelme play four of the 24 passes in the movement, but the way the moved ebbed and flowed, slowly moving forward and back before the final thrust, initiated by a Riquelme one-two with Javier Saviola, was the perfect distillation of all of his finest qualities. He even recognised as much; rather than racing over to the goalscorer, Riquelme simply turned to the sideline and raised his arms. This is how team football should be played.
One wonders what could have been had Argentina not crashed in the quarter-finals to a German side somewhat in transition, with youngsters like Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger sharing the pitch with stalwarts Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings. Riquelme didn’t get to have much of a say in the matter. When he was substituted in the 72nd minute, La Albiceleste were up 1-0, thanks to a goal he assisted through a corner headed in by Roberto Ayala. The man who had been Argentina’s heartbeat all-tournament would not only watch on as his side conceded the equaliser with 10 minutes left but would see Cambiasso, brought on for Riquelme to shore up the midfield, miss a penalty in the shootout. That loss would prove to be Riquelme’s last fleeting dalliance with global superstardom.
The following season would go on to be the second wasted year of his prime, as a fall out with Pellegrini would lead Riquelme being frozen out at Villarreal, first being loaned, then sold back to his spiritual home in Boca. There, he would build on the impressive legacy he had left behind, eventually moving into the club’s top 10 for both appearances and goals; and yet, Riquelme was never a player properly characterised by numbers alone. His legacy, the reason why many adored him above and beyond his stats or medal count, can be seen in the fraction of a second he held on to the ball to create the perfect pass, the way he could breeze through a game without breaking a sweat, while fitter, stronger players panted around him.
It is emblematic of the mercurial playmaker that perhaps the two biggest games of his career outside of Boca came down to heart-breaking penalty misses; one his own, the other missed by the man who replaced him. It adds to that wistful longing for what might have been. Yet, in many ways, it is that unfulfilled promise, that dreamy allure of some ultimate success left just out of reach, that allows us to so profusely romanticise Boca’s latest virtuoso number 10. It fosters that wonderful, effervescent nostalgia that reminds us why we fell in love with football in the first place.
As Argentina continues to grow economically, the potreros on which Riquelme first developed and honed his unique gifts have slowly disappeared. With them, many feel the free-spirited mavericks they produced may disappear too, replaced by more polished, refined alternatives.
Indeed, for large parts of his 18-year career, Riquelme felt like he was swimming against the tide, defiant in the face of a shift towards increased athleticism and professionalism that characterised much of his time in the game. It didn’t seem to harm his own fulfilment - upon retiring, following a brief, sparkling return to Argentinos Juniors, he simply concluded he had “enjoyed football to the maximum. I hope the people have enjoyed it alongside me.” The perfect send off for someone who was steadfastly his own man, yet acutely and intrinsically aware of his roots. We may never see another quite like him.
By Marcus Bliss.
Header image: Jànkela.