My Perfect 10: Juan Román Riquelme

We round off Playmakers Week with FourFourTwo.com's Argentine football expert Joel Richards' tribute to a player who has a habit of falling out with the wrong people...

Word was out about a prodigy emerging from the youth ranks at Argentinos Juniors in the early 1990s, when a local newspaper went along to find out what all the fuss was about.

The coaches were convinced they had found the next great talent at the club. Scouts were beside themselves.

The photographer sent that day to bring back the shot of the youngster later said she felt she had been in the presence of a child monarch – never has she seen such a self-assured boy of his age, so aware of the hype that was created around him, and so convinced he was taking the first steps of his predestined path towards greatness.

Hailing from the club where Diego Maradona first made his name, Juan Román Riquelme’s career would also go on to take more symmetry and comparisons with the 1986 World Cup winning captain.

Under the advice of Carlos Bilardo, Boca Juniors bought up a number of promising players from Argentinos Juniors in 1996. Fabricio Coloccini was one. Carlos Marinelli, once of Middlesborough, was another. Riquelme was also in the list.

As Maradona’s career wound down, so Riquelme’s started gathering pace. When Boca travelled to River for the superclásico in the Apertura ‘97, the stage was set for succession to the throne.

Maradona was playing his final competitive match of his career, and left the pitch at the Monumental with Boca trailing. 19 year old Riquleme replaced him, Boca turned the game around thanks to the substitute and won 2-1. The legend was born.

Maradona rightly battles it out with Pelé for the accepted best player of all time debate, but the Maradonian Church commandments declare that Diego belongs to the people, no one club can claim him as their own. Riquelme is unashamedly Boca’s number 10.

He was the central figure in the legendary Boca team of the 2000s that won five domestic league titles, four Libertadores trophies, two Copa Sudamericanas, three Recopa Sudamericanas and two Intercontinental trophies.

Riquelme did not win all of these with Boca. He had his famously ill-fated time at Barcelona under Van Gaal, and he took a tiny club from the south east of Spain to the semi-final of the Champions League in the meantime, before deciding that he preferred not to train at Villarreal, and in fact he wanted to return to Argentina.

Yet the role he played in the first phase of Boca’s success is what earned him his status at the club, and also announced Boca on the world stage.

Boasting a repertoire of stunning freekicks, surging runs from midfield, holding off three players at a time and revelling in his role as the team’s metronome, one of the highlights of his career is defeating Real Madrid in the 2000 Intercontinental Cup. Neither Geremi, Makelele nor Helguera could win the ball off him - even when all three tried at the same time.

The Intercontinental Cup has to be understood culturally – for sides from South America it is their one chance to prove they are as good, if not better than the European sides.

Few players have single-handedly embarrassed European opposition like Riquelme did that night in Tokyo.

After his spell in Europe, and after infamously missing the penalty against Arsenal to take Villarreal to the final of the Champions League, he fell out with Manuel Pellegrini, and returned to Boca. Initially he was just on loan, but he was also just in time for Boca’s 2007 Libertadores campaign.

Fresh from European experience, still just 28, Riquleme was the driving force behind the club’s run that ended with a 5-0 aggregate win in the final against Gremio. Riquelme scored eight goals along the way. It was his third Libertadores win.

The only debt is still with the national team. Although he was the axis of the 2006 side, José Pekerman still chose to take Riquelme off in the quarter final against Germany just when Argentina needed to keep the ball even more, having taken the lead.

Marcelo Bielsa chose not to take the young playmaker to the 2002 tournament, while this year’s World Cup missed out on Riquelme after another side of his character took centre-stage.

Now coach of the national side, Maradona claimed Riquelme was ‘no good to me if he can’t beat a player’ shortly after taking over as coach. Riquelme wasn’t playing his best football with Boca, but was still vital to the side.

Riquelme said Maradona had no ‘code’, and retired from the national team as long as Maradona was in charge. It was the second time he retired from international football.

Falling out with Maradona was far from a one-off. Pellegrini sent him packing after Riquelme refused to train. Martin Palermo, the Boca striker, is also said to have a far-from fluid relationship with the playmaker, while he is said to have scolded Messi at the 2007 Copa America for trying to join in a conversation. “Get out kid, the adults are talking” goes the story.

The 2007 Copa America is in fact where Riquelme’s career at international level should have changed. All that is remembered from that tournament now is Brazil’s 3-0 hammering of Argentina in the final. But Argentina played the best football in Venezuela, Riquleme was the best player of that tournament and with the final at 1-0 to Brazil, Riquelme hit the post from 20 yards out.

Had it gone in, perhaps the story would have been different.

But so it is that Juan Román Riquelme is an idol at Boca; an enigma, controversial and moody, outrageously gifted, author of the two best nutmegs in the last 20 years in Argentine football. And he’s just signed a new four year contract at Boca.

He is, as he knew he would be from a young age, King of the Castle.

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