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Idle idol, divinely divisive, combative conundrum: Juan Roman Riquelme ends an era

At Mar del Plata’s Estadio Ciudad, sitting in the stands and drinking mate (opens in new tab), Juan Roman Riquelme enjoyed his first Boca Juniors match as an ex-player.

Strange character, Roman. While stars from all over the world grieved his decision and paid homage to his quality, past coaches reacted with a respectful silence.

Looking innocent, baby-faced and too shy even to celebrate his goals, Riquelme enchanted fans from his very first game, against Union de Santa Fe, in 1996. Times were turbulent for Boca as manager Carlos Bilardo was forced to make changes in his team. Riquelme was one of his biggest bets.

And he ended up being man of the match, scoring one of the two goals and, more importantly, hearing his named chanted by La Doce ["The 12th Man" barra bravas] – something which has never happened with any other 18-year-old. It was clear that the relationship had begun as love at first sight and would continue as passionate until his last day at the club. That chant – Riqueeeeeeeelme, Riqueeeeeeelme – is now a hymn.

Riquelme is Boca’s all-time greatest idol. He’s above the likes of Roberto Mouzo, Antonio Rattin, Angel Clemente 'Rojitas' Rojas and even Diego Maradona. He’s the footballer who has played more times than any other at La Bombonera, which he calls “my back garden”. He has won 12 titles with the Xeneizes.

His stunning performance against Real Madrid in the 2000 Intercontinental Cup, earning the instant admiration of Zinedine Zidane, and how he single-handedly took Boca to winning the Copa Libertadores 2007, now are part of the legend.

Combative or convicted?

But if Roman was already a banner (or hundreds of them) at La Bombonera, as an ex-player he will become a living myth. His image will appear on the stands, but also on walls; a symbol of rebelliousness and genius.

It doesn’t really matter whether we describe his personality as stubborn or honest, combative or faithful to his convictions; in any case, Roman’s ways led him to a number of controversial decisions alongside his career. Sometimes he took advantage of the strife but in most cases, his beliefs were prejudicial for his playing career.

He quit Argentina’s national team and Boca twice; after another controversial exit, from Villarreal, he spent months without playing at all. Despite all that, he never kneeled to the powers he felt were challenging him.

Not only did he refuse to be part of Maradona’s national team after Diego made public remarks that annoyed him, he directly refused to mention his name again, opting to refer to him as “the national coach”.

Maradona couldn't stand it, but he couldn’t sort it out, either. Riquelme was the only player who hadn’t succumbed to his dominant personality. Worse for Diego, La Bombonera backed Riquelme’s decision and the admiration towards him increased.

The list of managers that fell in love with Riquelme is as long as the ones that couldn’t stand him, or didn’t understand him, or just never guessed how best to use their conflicted creator. Some managers found Roman the easiest person to handle, but others bore the confusion of a man desperately seeking a missing instructions manual.

When we have the ball, we have the world’s best player. When we lose the ball, we play as a 10”

Just as Alfio Basile, Jose Pekerman, Miguel Russo, Claudio Borghi and Carlos Bianchi considered Riquelme untouchable, almost a deity, there were other managers – Marcelo Bielsa, Louis van Gaal, Manuel Pellegrini, Julio Falcioni – who treated him differently, prompting instant tension.

The Dutchman quickly realised that Barcelona had bought him a problem rather than a solution. “When we have the ball, we have the world’s best player on our team. But when we lose the ball, we play as a 10”, he decided, instead picking the young Andres Iniesta.

Today Iniesta and Riquelme are good friends, admiring and recognising each other as members of the same breed. The same happens with Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane.

Embodying a tactic

“I never believed in tactics”, Riquelme used to say. "Football is very simple. If you play well, if you play better than your opposition, then you have more chances of winning. It’s other people that want it to look more complicated."

You must pull the strings for the team, accept that responsibility, they depend on you”

In truth, he was a strategist who strongly believed in tactics – along as it was 4-3-1-2, he was that 1, and the whole team depended on him. He wanted – needed – that responsibility.

When Boca sold him to Barcelona, he approached wonderkid Carlos Tevez (whose position was still undefined) and explained how to be a No.10: “If you play well, Boca will play well. If you don’t, Boca won’t. You must pull the strings for the team, accept that responsibility, they depend on you”.

Considered the game's last true enganche ["hook", or pivotal No.10], Riquelme was also criticised by the enemies of that role – managers and journalists who didn’t like relying on just one man to make a team work, and who preferred a more industrial approach in which all players attacked and defended.

With Riquelme, tactics were different. Teams were still teams, but they depended almost exclusively on Roman’s performances to attack, because in possession team-mates would instantly align around him, like planets around the sun. But as noted by Van Gaal, when the team lost the ball Riquelme turned from a star to a dead satellite.

For those reasons, since 1997 and until recently, the national team cycled between cosseting and discarding Riquelme. Passarella almost took him to France 1998; Bielsa never relied on him, preferring a more vertical, ceaseless style; Pekerman quickly named him team leader and main character; Basile raised the bet and made him captain; Maradona claimed he was too slow and needed to rethink his position; Sergio Batista welcomed him back for a possession-based ethos; even Sabella had to answer whether he would call Riquelme, almost 36 years old, for Brazil 2014.

Working with Riquelme (or not)

Like managers, his team-mates tend to grant him either unconditional love or contempt, without any grey areas. The reputation for being a problematic character grew bigger after April 2010, when Martin Palermo scored his 219th Boca goal to become the club's all-time top scorer; Riquelme, who set up the goal, ignored the striker and ran enthusiastically away to celebrate with the fans, an action taken by many as a deliberate hijack.

Tensions between the two Boca legends – each has a statue at La Bombonera – had been simmering since 2000. Before that Real Madrid match, Boca’s hotel was a war zone. Riquelme wanted his friend Marcelo Delgado in the team; Palermo wanted to play alongside his pal Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Only the intervention of some neutral players avoided a direct confrontation.

In the event Palermo scored both goals, Riquelme played wonderfully, both of them would be sold and all problems were forgotten for a few years – until they were back on the same team, older, more experienced and (even) more difficult to handle. Riquelme became an icon for the youngsters: he would approach them, offer them a sip of mate, talk to them and made them feel part of the team, dazzled by the humbleness of the club’s all-time biggest star.

But the experienced ones, especially those who didn’t grew up at Boca, were treated differently. “He’s a very complicated lad. Sometimes he doesn’t talk to you, he doesn’t say hello, there are games where he pretends to run or just remains passive”, said Paraguayan Julio Caceres, signing his own death certificate as a Boca player.

I come here to play, not to make friends"

Riquelme hit back: “I come here to play, not to make friends. When he was criticised, the only moron who stepped up to defend him was [me].” Caceres didn't last long after, and the list of players ejected after reputedly having problems with Riquelme is a long one, including Rodrigo Palacio, Morel Rodriguez, Santiago Silva, Walter Erviti and Leandro Somoza.

His stint at Villarreal wasn't without controversy, either. Legend has it that one of the main reasons for his change of mood was the arrival of Robert Pires, and the parking space the Frenchman received. Can this be really true? In any case, Roman fell out with manager Manuel Pellegrini and trained alone before sealing his return to Boca. From almost reaching the Champions League final to self-imposed exile, within months.

Becoming an idol

Fittingly, the most iconic of his covers for El Gráfico pictures him as Che Guevara. His followers are unconditional; this who don't believe are sworn enemies. It’s not a coincidence that the expression “soldier of Riquelme” was engraved on thousands of Twitter and Facebook accounts, T-shirts, flags and even tattoos – but especially carved in people’s minds. Roman was a general and his followers were soldiers.

Before deciding to hang up his boots, he had spent the last six months at Argentinos Juniors, the club where he had started before moving to Boca when he was 18.

With his help, Argentinos achieved promotion back to First Division. By then, Roman had already fallen out with his manager, Nestor Gorosito. The No.10 dedicated the victory to Claudio Borghi, who had resigned when the team’s promotion appeared to be unlikely, but made no mention to his new coach.

“It’s him or me,” the gaffer had told the board. They didn’t have to choose – Roman was already suggesting a farewell from Argentinos, after paying back a moral debt by representing the club of his origins.

Some mentioned a move to Paraguay, Brazil or even back to La Bombonera. None of this would happen. Just as sharp as he was on the pitch, Riquelme was already two steps further of the play and surprised the whole country.

When he announced his retirement, he also announced that he might want to return to Boca – as president. The incumbent, Daniel Angelici, has a long history of arguments with the iconic No.10. As the club’s treasurer he vetoed the player's contract, and after being elected president he negotiated a new one.

He was also forced to sack Julio Falcioni after Riquelme, who had quit the team saying he felt empty, said publicly that the team couldn’t manage two passes in a row. A few days later, La Bombonera, turned into an Argentinian Colosseum, became a massive thumbs-down for Falcioni’s contract extension. Angelici never forgave Riquelme for that embarrassment.

The club’s elections are at the end of the year. After the success of Juan Sebastian Veron at Estudiantes, few doubt that Riquelme will result as a winner – either by running for president or supporting a candidate from the opposition. In the meantime, the magic of his football will grow bigger every day. So too will his myth.

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