If Claude Makelele was one of the greatest over-achievers in the history of football; then Juan Roman Riquelme must unfortunately be regarded as a considerable under-achiever. Makelele made more of limited ability than any other player; Riquelme relatively little of instinctive footballing giftedness. During one match, against Serbia & Montenegro in the World Cup in Germany, Riquelme showcased more verve and inspiration than Makelele managed in his whole career. Unfortunately, what should have been a career-defining performance instead became a sad portent of what might have been for this somewhat wasted talent.
Blessed with the most natural appreciation of space and collective team movement I can recall before Barcelona redefined the art of possession football through Xavi and Iniesta, Riquelme dominated games with swagger and style at his peak despite his lack of physical gifts. Relying purely on his technical ability and football intelligence Riquelme was indisputably an artist at work in the beautiful game. Owning technique, balance, passing ability, imagination and a magisterial first touch – the Argentinian had it almost all.
A goal against Brazil in a World Cup qualifier encapsulated Riquelme’s imperious footballing ability. Prompting the move by controlling a Roberto Carlos clearance with an outrageous back-heeled volley out to the right flank, Riquelme received the ball a couple of passes later, waltzed around one challenge and absolutely caned the ball into the top corner with his allegedly weaker foot. Similarly, while Cambiasso may have scored that famous goal against Serbia in Germany, it was completely owned by Riquelme’s passing, movement and opening of space.
Two truly glorious goals; but ones which possibly revealed more questions than answers about the delightful Riquelme. Why, with this immense natural talent, was Riquelme not able to harness it more consistently? Why were there only flashes throughout his career of the greatness that should have been automatic for such a footballing visionary?
Each of Riquelme’s major club honours were won on the continent of his birth for Boca Juniors. 3 Copa Libertadores trophies and 4 Argentinian League titles is a considerable weight of silver for an heir to Maradona’s revered Number 10 shirt at Boca. However, and this is a great shame, South American club football has been a veritable sporting backwater since the conception of the gargantuan, consuming Champions League. Institutions of the game like Boca and River Plate in Argentina; Sao Paulo and Santos in Brazil, lie crumbling due to this evil empire of greed and selfishness. It is against this backdrop of sporting imbalance that Riquelme has prospered; not exactly the top of the game – even for the most vehement defenders of Riquelme.
However, for one glorious half-season in 2006 Riquelme reached the heights that his natural talent demanded but even that career zenith was marred by two unfortunate moments. After single-handedly dragging his mediocre Villarreal team to the Champions League semi-finals Riquelme then missed a penalty in the closing moments of the second leg against Arsenal that would have taken the tie to extra-time.
The second moment was less Riquelme’s fault but tragically extinguished what was still threatening to be a great career. After effortlessly controlling the Argentinian team for the first four and a half matches of the World Cup, including his afore-mentioned masterpiece against Serbia, Riquelme was substituted with ten minutes left in the quarter-final against Germany. Leading 1-0 at the time, Argentina initially surrendered the initiative in the absence of Riquelme, and then the lead – Germany eventually going on to win on penalties. Despite his later resurrection back in Argentina with Boca Juniors, this act of ludicrous stupidity by Jose Pekerman was the death knell for any aspirations to immortality for Riquelme.
Riquelme could be viewed as a throwback player; had his career occurred in the ‘80s, or even the ‘90s, he might be regarded with the same appreciation as Roberto Mancini – a similarly languid maestro in possession. Unfortunately, the modern game with its emphasis on high tempo pressing and speed of movement contributed to Riquelme’s continued struggle to impose himself on European football during an unhappy spell at Barcelona and through five inconsistent years at Villarreal. While undoubtedly a gifted footballer, and his pinnacle in 2006 will live long in the memory, he should be regarded as the anti-Makelele – a genius whose potential remained unfulfilled.