Argentina has produced a long line of footballing legends. Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi will rightfully go down as two of the greatest footballers to ever play the game, but a special place in the history books must be reserved for Juan Román Riquelme. He may not have amassed the same stash of prestigious trophies as his compatriots, but he certainly earned his place among the pantheon of Argentinian heroes.
Regarded as one of the last genuine number 10s, Riquelme made the playmaker role his own, capable of picking the locks of the toughest defences with pinpoint passing and a level of creativity that only the rarest players possess. To watch him on a football pitch was akin to observing an artist at work; a remarkable reader of the game who made pinpoint passes appear effortless, Riquelme was a master of his craft.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Riquelme was exposed to football from an early age, joining up with local team Argentinos Juniors and quickly catching the eye of more esteemed clubs. Before he was even 18, Riquelme had earned his first big move, with Boca Juniors paying a fee of US$800,000 for the future star.
Swiftly developing into a fan favourite right at the time when Diego Maradona was in the final stages of his career, Riquelme appeared to have all the craft and guile needed to take the legend’s place. He helped Boca to six titles over a six-year period, including two Copa Libertadores wins, before making a move to Barcelona in 2002.
After breaking into the national squad and establishing himself as one of the most exciting South American talents, it was at this stage in his career that Riquelme could, and perhaps should, have conquered Europe in the same way Maradona had done before him. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Barcelona manager Louis Van Gaal openly stated that he hadn’t wanted the club to sign Riquelme and used the Argentinian sparingly. The more intense, fast-paced style of football in La Liga also initially seemed unsuitable for Riquelme’s calmer style of play. Rarely one to track back, the Boca legend was often criticised for letting teammates take care of the grittier side of the game while he simply waited to receive the ball and make magic happen.
It hadn’t worked at Barcelona, but Riquelme was given an unlikely second chance of Spanish success at Villareal. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. The club had been in the Spanish second division only a couple of years earlier but suddenly found themselves challenging the nation’s elite, even finishing third in the 2004-05 season, which also saw Riquelme honoured with the ‘Most Artistic Player’ award by Marca.
The number 10 had found his niche. Forging a strong partnership with striker Diego Forlán, he endeared himself to the fans, creating and scoring goal after goal with consummate ease. His penalty miss in the 2006 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal was a defining disappointment, but only a couple of months later, he was back to his majestic best, helping Argentina reach the quarter finals of the 2006 World Cup.
A falling out with club bosses at Villareal led to Riquelme returning to his homeland, once more helping Boca Juniors to multiple titles and winning several individual awards. Finally, he went back where it all began, playing a single season with Argentinos Juniors and helping the club achieve promotion.
His capricious character sometimes threatened to derail his career, and he had more than his share of bad luck on and off the field, with his brother being kidnapped and his mother’s health failing at key moments in his life, but Riquelme’s natural brilliance always shone through. When the ball fell at his feet, every fan in the stadium knew that a magical moment might be just a second or two away.