Julio Falcioni was furious; his team disconsolate. The coach scanned his depleted dressing room, and found the one he was looking for: “You,” he bellowed. “You’re not the coach, I am!” His victim was shocked. Juan Roman Riquelme is a man defined by ambiguity, his face hard to read at the best of times, but Boca Juniors’ enigmatic and mercurial talisman was quite clearly stunned – and then just bloody angry.
Falcioni’s own fury quickly dispersed into something more closely resembling embarrassment. Not least because the rest of the squad quickly chose their side, standing firmly behind their on-field leader, and informing the ‘boss’ that in fact it wasn’t ‘el ultimo diez’ that had told striker Dario Cvitanich to move to a more central position, but the class pet, Walter Erviti – the man Falcioni brought with him to from Banfield, where the duo clinched am unlikely 2009 Apertura league title; the man brought in to replace Riquelme.
The incident took place following a pitiful display that saw Boca slump to a goalless draw in Venezuela against Copa Libertadores newcomers Zamora. It served as a reminder that the undisputed king of Boca Juniors could not be usurped, and marked the middle of the end – the beginning took place long ago. Falcioni and Riquelme’s philosophical feud was put on hold only as long as the results continued. An Apertura title and a run to the Copa Libertadores final was enough to keep both parties distracted, but when Boca fell at the final hurdle, going down 2-0 to Corinthians, the end had finally arrived.
“I've talked to the team, I've talked to the club president and I’ve told them I'm not going to carry on,” Riquelme told a frenzied media pack in São Paulo. As Daniel Angelici looked on, the President’s look of disdain and envy – almost in equal measures – suggested he had indeed been told – told that the biggest idol in the club’s history was tearing up his contract. A contract that still had two years to run. A contract that had torn the boardroom in half just two years ago.
“The dedication I have to the club is huge,” Riquelme continued. “But I feel empty. I have nothing else to give… I'm a fan of this club. I can't go out and play at 50 per cent.”
And that was that. There were protests. Online campaigns. Accusations of betrayal. But nothing could change his mind. One of the grandest love affairs in football’s recent history had finally come to an end.
After that there was nothing.
Until, that is, this past week when Riquelme called a press conference. Argentina came to a standstill. As did Riquelmistas from across the globe. We sat with bated breath, dreading what seemed the inevitable: confirmation of a retirement that would break the hearts of football’s last remaining romantics.
Sporting a I’ve-just-pinched-this-table-cloth-from-a-novelty-Italian-restaurant-and-had-it-made-into-a-shirt look, he took his seat next to Angelici, with his a familiar look of unease, eyes almost glazed over, ostensibly looking inwards as opposed to out at the packed media room. What followed was all very Riquelme. Actions of a man who seems to crave attention, yet appear anxious and introvert whenever he gets it. Angelici kicked things off, telling us nothing other than what we already knew: Riquelme’s contract, and pay, has been suspended, meaning he will be allowed to join whoever he wants outside of Argentina.
Then Riqulme piped up: “I've left the club and I'm happy with my decision.” That he was holding a press conference with the president of that club , a club that still holds his registration, suggested he hadn’t. “I'm a man who always keeps his word. I have fulfilled all my dreams as a player,” he continued.
“My decision had nothing to do with the [Julio Falcioni]. I didn't need a manager anymore… I don't what I will do next. I'll speak with my family. I have the right to go on vacations with my family. Then, I don't know what I'll do.”
The only vaguely interesting thing to arise from the event – which it truly was – was when he referred to Maradona as ‘muchacho’, perhaps best translated as ‘that guy’, saying, “I don’t care what he says [about me].”
The proceedings drew to a close with Angelici declaring “the club’s doors will always be open to him for a testimonial match whenever Riquelme wants, because we will always be grateful for all the great memories he gave us and the trophies he won for us.” And that was that. Media outlets across the world led with the Maradona quote. In truth, there was little else there.
Days earlier, a packed Bombonera sang his name for almost the entire half-time break. Voted the greatest player in the club’s history a couple of years ago, they’re not ready to let him go. Perhaps Riquelme's not ready to be let go of them. And so still he lurks, permeating every corner of La Bombonera.
It’s difficult to quantify just what Riquelme means to Boca Juniors, what Boca Juniors mean to Riquelme, or what Riquelme means to Argentinian football as a whole. In most ways, he’s the ultimate one-club man. He once spent five years estranged from the love of his life, but that he would one day return was never in any doubt. He signed for Boca as a 17 year-old, and never wanted to be anywhere else. Following a remarkable Intercontinental Cup performance against Real Madrid, he joined Barcelona in 2002 – a move he has since claimed was forced upon him. After initially rejecting the transfer, the story goes that the deal was finally concluded after Boca told their young enganche that without the €11 million euro fee, the club would find itself in serious financial trouble. The time had come to put the money where his heart was: if he truly loved the club, he would go. Román packed his bags.
It didn’t start well. Upon his arrival in Catalonia, Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal handed Riquelme a child’s replica shirt as a present for his newborn son, along with the words, “he will get to wear his more than you wear yours.”
Riquelme’s torrid time with Barca finally came to an end when Villarreal came to his aide. He would lead the club into a new era, one that culminated in a Champions League semi-final; so integral was his role in the club’s rise from relative obscurity, that it seemed almost fitting that Riquelme himself should be the one to miss the penalty that finally sunk the club’s dreams of stepping onto the biggest stage of them all.
A year later his time in Europe was up. Manuel Pellegrini could stand no more of the temperamental playmaker. Offers came flooding in from all over the continent. But they were never really an option. “I thank [Tottenham] for their interest but my family and I want to return home,” Román told the press, all the while making eyes at his very own Winnie Cooper back in la Boca. “I am a simple person," he assured them, "and all I want is to play football every Sunday.” He yearned for a return to his first love. The only stumbling block was financial. One he effortlessly breezed past. “I have told Villarreal they do not have to pay me what they owe… [and] I have offered to play a year for free with Boca.”
And so he did. And while doing so, he almost single-handedly led the club to the 2007 Copa Libertadores. His subsequent impact on the club is arguable – his feud with Martin Palermo was undoubtedly a major factor in the three barren years that followed at La Bombonera; the cult of the idol took hold of a club once again, blocking the progression of what was an extremely talented production line – but his overall contribution to the club remains unrivalled.
Because Riquelme is more important than the titles. In some ways, he’s more important than football. He’s something of a cultural artefact; he evokes comparisons to Argentina itself, and perhaps even to the eternal enigmas that make up the mythical figure of former President Juan Peron. Contradictory and ambiguous, he thrives only when entire teams are built around him; he survives only in teams that work as one cohesive unit. His manipulation of space both for himself and those around him remains almost unrivalled in the modern era. They've built his pedestal higher than those reserved for others, and he is anointed responsibility for the betterment of all.
He’s the last of a dying breed. The archetypal Argentine enganche. He’s inspired poetry. Attracted admiration from the most unlikely of sources. For a decade and a half he has ran the game at his own pace, ignoring the technocratic advancement of a sport that Eduardo Galeano once said, “has managed to impose a football of lightening speed and brute strength, a football that negates skill, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.” In a culture that has become more and more visceral, Riquelme's approach has remained irrefutably cerebral. He's valued style over substance. Preferring to pass than score, he holds creation and aesthetics above all else - a point most emphatically made to his antithesis, Martin Palermo, when El Titan was handed his record breaking 219th goal on a silver platter.
For all his pitfalls, of which there are many, he remains one of the most mesmerising and intriguing characters in the history of the game, both of and off the pitch. He's an idealist; or perhaps more accurately, someone who represents the game's increasingly marginalised idealists. Football is now one of the world's leading modes of cultural expression. And so of course it's about more than results. It has to be, if it is to truly mean something. For some of us, Riquelme, more than anyone else, reminds us of that. For now he has us all in limbo, and it is unclear as to whether or not we will see him orchestrating a top flight match ever again. But some of us hope so. Some of us aren't quite ready to say goodbye.
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