On Sunday, January 26th 2015 a small part of football died and not just for fans of Boca Juniors or Argentines but football in its broadest, global sense. Juan Román Riquelme announced his retirement and with it football saw the end of an era and certainly the last #10 of his kind. Wanting to avoid some of the hyperbole that sweeps through footballing circles and social media, Riquelme was not the greatest footballer of all time but his uniqueness and majesty when at his peak made him one of the most idolised players of all time.
January, Argentine summertime, has typically, in recent years, been a time when the proscrastination of Riquelme and where he might end up playing has dominated the sports papers. This year was no different, after the iconic number 10 left his boyhood club, Argentinos Juniors on the back of promotion into the Primera and relaxed, while teams from around the continent courted him. A transfer to Paraguayan outfit, Cerro Porteño was reportedly close but on Sunday evening, Riquelme ended all speculation.
“I have decided to no longer play football. Now I am just a fan. I will go and suffer in the stadium. I am very pleased with the career I had.”
The Boca Juniors legend added, “I enjoyed football to the maximum. I hope the people have enjoyed it alongside me. I tried to have a good time. I tried to give everything I could to fans of Boca, Argentina, Villarreal and Barcelona, in the youth teams and the full team.”
“I am someone who makes decisions calmly, who thinks a lot. It’s clear now that I’ll be on holiday, I’ll have fun, enjoy time with my children. From now on my football life ends and a new life starts. Let’s see what it holds.”
A 36-year-old midfielder retiring who did not have a glittering career in Europe, made only 51 Argentina appearances in an era when the national side largely disappointed and who has won less trophies than many others should not be such headline news. However, newspapers and websites from the United States, Europe and wider afield have all been having their say on the end of Riquelme’s career.
The reason for this is the romanticism that surrounds Riquelme, a player who has made his own way in the game with no compromises. In the modern game, where power and pace have become more important than ever, Riquelme has forever played at his own pace. At times appearing as if in slow-motion, effortlessly gliding around the pitch, with touch and technique that can rarely be rivalled. Inch-perfect freekicks, defence splitting passes that most would not even see, let alone execute and the kind of control that makes a couple of inches in midfield seem like an acre.
For this and his unerring style I have the utmost admiration for Riquelme, without being either a Boca fan or one of his legion of adoring legion of groupies. The greatest players of all time, in my opinion, exhibit the kind of qualities that would see them excel in any generation and almost in any position on the pitch. That could not be said of Riquelme. Falling out of favour with Argentina under Bielsa or moving to Barcelona and never being granted the opportunity to shine in his preferred or perhaps only position, Román failed to shine on these grandest of platforms.
However, while I do not herald him as the ‘greatest of all-time’ I do not particularly hold this against him. When in a side who put full faith in his abilities and mould the side around him, there were few better midfielders. Controlling posession while armed with the tools at any point to inflict damage to his opponents.
With Boca Juniors under Carlos Bianchi, the national side under José Pékerman or with Villarreal under Manuel Pellegrini, Riquelme shone. His five Primera titles and three Libertadores medals are testament of this with Boca as is when Boca defeated the galacticos of Real Madrid for the Intercontinental Cup in 2000.
His time in Spain with Villarreal may not have yielded the same trophy haul but dragging such a small club to challenge the European super powers in the Champions League is no small feat. Likewise with the national side, Riquelme did not experience lifting a trophy with La Albiceleste but was central to some of the most beautiful football that Argentina have played. Few can forget his unbelievable free kicks against Bolivia in 2010, or his role in THE goal against Serbia at the 2006 World Cup.
There are so many highlights throughout Riquelme’s career and whether you are one of his fanclub or one who thinks he is an overrated icon for the football hipster, Argentine football is a poorer place for his absence. Riquelme has enjoyed his football and it is safe to say that 99% of football fans have enjoyed watching him in equal measure.