Farewell to Juan Roman Riquelme: Rebel with a pause

By All Blue Daze.

Following legendary Argentine playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme’s retirement at 36 last month, All Blue Daze recalls his memories of the on-field artist’s journey from loan star to Villarreal maverick.

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Around nine years ago, I was on holiday in Sitges, just outside Barcelona. I was sitting outside a bar with a cold beer whilst the wife had gone off shopping. Relaxing in the Catalan sunshine, I was reading a copy of local newspaper Sport that covers predominantly FC Barcelona.

The headline on the front page concerned Juan Roman Riquelme. The Argentine had been signed for the Blaugrana but, after a season being largely ignored by then-manager Louis van Gaal, loaned out to Villarreal. The loan deal was now coming to an end, and the club had to decide what to do with the maverick Argentine playmaker.

A sale to Villarreal would have been ideal, but there was no way the small-town club could afford any realistic transfer fee, let alone match the player’s Barcelona wages. Barca had now also signed Ronaldinho, and with their quota of foreign players filled, there was no place for Riquelme. The headline translated as “Riquelme: A transfer that must happen”.

A Barcelona ‘cule’, the waiter said that the club simply had to transfer him to Villarreal, regardless of the cost. We chatted for a while and then he added, “An artist. But we want to win.” I wasn’t too familiar with Riquelme’s play before then, but the phrase stuck in my mind. Sure enough, the clubs came to an agreement, including some kind of sell-on clause and Riquelme moved to the Valencian club. It may have been the shrewdest bit of business the Yellow Submarine ever conducted.

At the time, the club was managed by Manuel Pellegrini who was canny enough to also recognise that Riquelme was an artist. Not a player to be locked into a rigid team structure, but one who would reward a freedom to play with the sort of performances that would delight fans and prise open defences with exquisite play. Later that same year Villarreal qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, eliminating Manchester United in the group stage.

Inspired by Riquelme, they progressed to the semi-final where they faced Arsenal. Trailing by a single goal from the game at Highbury, the Spanish team could not unlock the Gunners defence in the home leg until a late penalty was awarded to them. Up stepped Riquelme, with confidence to send the game into extra time. Jens Lehmann leapt across his goal, however, and parried the ball away. Arsenal held on for the 0-0 draw and Villarreal were eliminated. When the final whistle went the cameras panned to the Argentine in an ‘if only’ sort of moment. My mind went back to the waiter at the bar. All season long, Riquelme had encouraged his overperforming team, prodding and cajoling with elegant play to produce results that were probably beyond them by any realistic measure.

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Villarreal’s season had been one of those rare occasions when one part of a team made the output of the whole unit much greater than it would have been by drawing an increased quality from his team-mates. It was a time to celebrate the artist and the pictures he had conjured up for his club, rather than looking at any sad denouement. The beauty was in the journey, not in the arrival.

A consideration of the end of a Riquelme tale is particularly relevant at the moment, as the now Argentinos Juniors player announced his retirement last month. When I read an article by the famous Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, following the announcement, it quickly became clear that likening Riquelme to an artist was not uncommon. Galeano wrote that Riquelme was a rebel who had performed with grace and elegance in a time when the game “has managed to impose a football of lightning speed and brute strength, a football that negates skill, kills fantasy and outlaws daring”.

I’ve particularly avoided listing the trophy haul that the Argentine accumulated over his 18-year career. There were more than a few, but for someone who emphasised the journey rather than the arrival, focusing on that particular element is surely more apposite.

For more from All Blue Daze:

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