Languid, nonchalant and mercurial, Juan Roman Riquelme has cut a divisive figure within the football world for almost two decades. Riquelme announced on Sunday that this season would be his last, turning down a contract worth $110,000 a month. A genius to some, a liability to others, the Argentine refused to alter his approach to the game in a career spanning eighteen years. Riquelme turned out for Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Villareal and Argentinos Juniors where he regularly lit up games as an incredibly naturally gifted old-fashioned no.10. However, as the 36-year-old draws the curtain upon his career, there is a feeling among many that Riquelme is not quite regarded as the true great that his ability should have merited.
Beginning his career at Argentinos Juniors, Riquelme moved to Boca Juniors at the age of 17. By the time he had turned 18, he was a regular fixture for the titans of Argentinian football. Riquelme quickly established himself as a skillful and flamboyant playmaker, capable of changing the outcome of a game at a whim. After 6 years at Boca, in which he played 194 games, scoring 44 goals and receiving international recognition, Riquelme moved to Barcelona. Louis van Gaal described Riquelme as a ‘political signing’ and treated the Argentine with, at best, indifference. Shipped out to the wing, Riquelme was never able to display his true ability at the Camp Nou. In 2003, Riquelme headed south down the Spanish east-coast to Villarreal, first on loan but the move would later become permanent.
Manuel Pellegrini became the manager of the side in 2004 and afforded Riquelme the freedom he needed to flourish. Now 27, Riquelme was showing himself to be quite simply one of the finest footballers in the world. In the 2004-05 campaign, Riquelme pulled the little-fancied Villarreal up to a third placed finish in La Liga, scoring 15 goals in 35 games. There was little mention of the Argentines insouciance or apparent laziness in a season that saw Riquelme nominated for the FIFA Player of the Year Award as well as winning La Liga’s Foreign Player of the Year and La Liga’s Most Artistic Player award. The following year Riquelme was outstanding once more, taking the side into the last four of the Champions League.
True to form though, Riquelme fell out with manager and director alike and went from untouchable to unwanted in a remarkable twist of fate that took place over a matter of months. Riquelme regularly refused to train and was even known to refuse to play, the club made numerous allowances for the playmaker due to his importance to the side, but could take no more. Following the defeat to Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final in which Riquelme failed to convert a penalty, he appeared a shadow of his former self. No longer an unplayable force of nature, Riquelme was seen merely as a disruptive influence at the club and returned to Boca Juniors where he became the highest paid player in Argentina.
Boca not only rewarded Riquelme with a generous contract but also assurances that his behavioural tendencies would go unpunished. Riquelme played a further 187 games for the club, placing him in the clubs all-time top 10 charts for both appearances and goals. Riquelme made 51 appearances for Argentina, most Argentina fans consider that figure to be only half what the playmaker should have racked up in his career. Riquelme first retired from international football in 2007 after being heavily blamed for Argentina’s 3-0 defeat to Brazil which reportedly sent his mother into poor health. He retired a second time in 2009 before the 2010 World Cup due to strong disagreements with Diego Maradona. Disagreements which led to large-scale praise and criticism in equal measure from the Argentine public. He would never return after his retirement in 2009, despite numerous attempts from following manager Alejandro Sabella.
Riquelme may be regarded by many in Europe as a wasted talent restricted by his leisurely approach to the game and refusal to work on any terms other than his own. In Argentina though, Riquelme sits among the genuine pantheon’s of their national game as a magnificent and unique talent who played the game at his own pace with remarkable grace and flamboyance. Four time Argentine Footballer of the Year, Riquelme has the same number of wins as Diego Maradona and only Lionel Messi has more than the pair. Riquelme’s legendary status has become all to clear in the wake of his retirement announcement this week. Fans of River Plate were quick to praise their bitter rivals legend, an appraisal that is not too often afforded. Meanwhile, many have called for Boca to retire the number 10 shirt in the memory of the great man.