Falcioni gambles his own Boca future by axing ever-popular Riquelme

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"I don’t give explanations," was all Julio César Falcioni was willing to offer. "It’s not a tactical question, it’s to do with how the team operates," he added, before stating that the side that he had chosen was the ‘best’ team he could field.

To the devotees, to the fundamentalists, to the believers and definitely to the group that met at Buenos Aires’ phallic landmark The Obelisk on Wednesday to kick up a fuss in the centre of town and show support for their idol, the idea that the ‘best’ Boca team does not include Juan Román Riquelme is heresy.

By excluding him from the squad - not just the starting eleven, but the squad - Falcioni is the first coach to leave out a fully-fit Riquelme. "I don’t agree with the decision," muttered the dropped number 10.

It is a decision that will define Falcioni’s reign at the Bombonera and, therefore, define Riquelme’s future.

Just two matches into the Clausura, the Boca coach has taken on the biggest fight of all, against the star player, against the fans’ favourite, against members of the board. It is an enormous gamble.

A distilled reading of what has happened so far goes like this: on his debut at the Bombonera, Falcioni lined up with Riquelme, and the team lost 4-1 to Godoy Cruz. It was a historic thrashing. The following week, without Riquelme, the team won away to Racing, 1-0.

Julio César Falcioni - he

But beyond pure resultadismo, there is more going on. Against Godoy Cruz, playing just behind Riquelme was Walter Erviti, a creative and thoughtful passing midfielder who operates best slightly deeper than Riquelme, but whose function in his teams (before moving to Boca on the insistence of Falcioni) has always been similar to Riquelme’s.

The side made several chances, and bad luck and poor finishing conspired against Boca. At the other end the team leaked chances, and together with a nervy performance in goal by Javier García, they conceded four.

The following week against Racing they won, but neither Erviti nor Riquelme played. Boca created nothing. The only goal came after Javier García, back on form, held on to the ball for 10 seconds, much to the disgruntlement of Racing fans, and then thumped the ball forward. One bounce took the ball to Pablo Mouche, who was left unmarked and finished well.

It wasn’t so much route one as route zero (Riquelme, as Jorge Valdano once commentated, prefers to take the longest route possible).

Falcioni has form in dropping big name players from his spell in charge both at Vélez and Independiente, but as one radio announcer delicately put it during an interview with Riquelme after the news broke that he had been dropped, ‘who has got the testicles to put Riquelme on the bench?’ If Boca don’t find their stride quickly on Saturday against All Boys, Falcioni is in for a rough ride in front of the home fans.

All of this plays out in the context of a wider battle at Boca, within which Riquelme-gate is just one of the various plots, albeit one of the central ones, interweaving with other stories of power struggles. Riquelme’s contract extension split the board down the middle. Handing him an expensive four-year contract with his history of injuries was too much according to some.

The fact that the club then brought in a stern coach who doesn’t like to play with a classic enganche is, as Ariel Greco put it in Página/12, "like a top end restaurant bringing in a cook who only flips burgers because he overcooks the sweetbread."

And beyond the decision to bring in a conservative-minded coach while renewing the contract of the star player whose characteristics essentially demands building a team around him, rest several other problems.

Last week directors had to publicly refute reports that punches were thrown during a board meeting. Whether there were punches or not, the fact they have to deny those reports speaks volumes of the current climate in the boardroom. And things aren't looking much cooler in the dressing room either…

FIXTURES Friday Olimpo v Godoy Cruz, Colón v Gimnasia Saturday Lanús v Quilmes, San Lorenzo v Racing, Boca v All Boys Sunday Estudiantes v Banfield, Argentinos v Vélez, Independiente v River Monday Huracán v Arsenal, Tigre v Newell’s