Advent Day 10 – Juan Román Riquelme, the player who pauses

By Joe Davies

Number 10. Football’s most iconic shirt number has been synonymous with teams’ creative attackers all over the world. Brazil have had Pelé, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. Italy had Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero. Even England have had Geoff Hurst, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. However, nowhere is the number more crucial to a team’s identity than in Argentina. Arguably the two greatest players to have ever played the game, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, have donned the number for La Albiceleste, but few have embodied the essence of the shirt and its implied role more than Juan Román Riquelme.

Jonathan Wilson’s book Angels With Dirty Faces traces the post-war development of the Argentine game in conflict with British ex-pats, which led to two distinct styles of play and an inherent cultural attachment to the number 10 for ‘real Argentinians’, in what was essentially an immigrant nation. Wilson identifies Riquelme as one of the most iconic players to have worn the shirt for Boca Juniors, despite his lack of all-roundedness as a player.

“I don’t know if it’s a soft spot particularly, but Riquelme fascinates me. He’s completely the opposite of what I think a footballer should be and here’s why: If you grew up supporting Sunderland in the ‘80s you don’t have much time for skill!” he said.

“But with Riquelme… just to have so little pace and still be a professional footballer! I never really ‘got’ him until I went to La Bombonera and saw him live. I just find him so interesting and is someone I could write about forever.”

Riquelme’s style perfectly captured the essence of what it means to be a ‘fantasista’; he played the game at his own pace, often appearing lazy or laconic, but was able to turn a game on its head with one moment of brilliance. He was the heartbeat of Boca and Villarreal, two teams who were, admittedly, small enough that he could dominate as the talisman of the club, and managers would accommodate his lack of pace and work rate by placing him behind the striker – the natural home of a number 10 – with his teammates picking up the workload in defensive phases. In this sense he was perhaps the last true playmaker, not tasked with the pressing duties of modern day attacking midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne, Isco or Dele Alli. Likewise creative players are rarely given the license to operate purely in the old-school, between-the-lines, central position, often being forced out wide or into deeper roles nowadays, something Mesut Özil has had difficulty with at Arsenal.

Gauchos describe Riquelme’s role as ‘the player who pauses’. He began his career at Boca Juniors in 1996, debuting at 18 years of age, and quickly cemented himself as a creative leader for the working class side. His slick performances earned him a move to Louis Van Gaal’s Barcelona in 2002, but the Dutchman described his transfer as a political signing, and refused to play him in the league. However, his apparent failure in European football at Barca was little more than a brief ‘pause’ in his steady ascent, with a loan spell to Villarreal the following season and subsequent permanent move till 2007 cementing him as an all-time legend of the Yellow Submarine. Perhaps his greatest achievement in Spanish football came with his contribution to Villarreal’s semi-final Champions League run in 2006, where he played for Manuel Pellergini’s outfit with the likes of Diego Forlan and Santi Cazorla. He had been instrumental in getting the Castellon side through tough fixtures against Manchester United in the group stages and Inter Milan in the quarters, but was unlucky to miss a penalty in the second leg of the semis against Arsenal, which would have sent the team through to the Paris final against domestic rivals Barcelona.

In the same season, Juan Román played in Zinedine Zidane’s last game for Real Madrid. The two playmakers swapped shirts after the game, symbolising the shared footballing qualities the pair had and demonstrating the respect France’s trequartista had for the Argentine.

However, it was in Boca that Riquelme really cemented himself as the all-time, Argentine number 10. He returned to his boyhood club in 2007 after falling out with Pellegrini and the Villarreal board. Having spent eight years at the club prior to his move to Barcelona, he came back a hero, and would continue to perform at the highest level for the club until 2014. Riquelme had always stayed loyal to his childhood friends, neighbours and family, and came to symbolise what it meant to be part of Boca Juniors, representing the raw essence of potrero – the urban spaces in Buenos Aires where Argentinian children would imitate the tricks and skills of their footballing idols, most of all Riquelme.

While Riquelme would have been disappointed with last Sunday’s Copa Libertadores result, with Boca losing to their bitter rivals River Plate, it is testament to the man that he remains one of the three statues stood infront of a football shop just outside of La Bombanera. For many, Riquelme represented the way the Argentine game should be played, and his legacy as the last great number 10 continues to be honoured with shirts like this:

Riquelme may not be the greatest ever number 10, but he was certainly the truest holder of the shirt.

Joe Davies is a founder of 5WFootball, edits copy and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here and follow him on Twitter here.

3 thoughts on “Advent Day 10 – Juan Román Riquelme, the player who pauses

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