When Boca Juniors manager Héctor Veira decided to give 18-year old Juan Román Riquelme his senior-level debut on November 10, 1996, he knew exactly what he was doing. What he saw was a young, strong, resilient central attacking midfielder with an incisive passing game and goal-scoring eye to match.
He would eventually metamorphose into an Argentinian and Boca Juniors icon, well deserving of the infamous No. 10 shirt, and would inspire millions of young children (including myself) to fall under the spell of the beautiful game. Perhaps Riquelme’s most outstanding quality, besides his passing and eye for the game, was his undoubted loyalty to his clubs and to his country. Indeed, it must be emphasized that Riquelme, along with Gheorghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov, were paragons of their generation’s playmaking game.
Juan Román Riquelme was born June 28, 1978 in San Fernando, Argentina. The son of impoverished parents, Riquelme developed and fell in love with the game in the potreros – the vacant lots where Argentine boys played and dreamed. He played for several local clubs until he trialled and signed with Argentinos Juniors, before being bought for $800,000 by Boca Juniors and placed in their U-20 side. After a year with the U-20s he made his full professional debut against Unión de Santa Fe and two weeks later scored his first goal, a one-time swerving effort that went off of both posts and in, against Club Atlético Huracán.
After an impressive first season for the Argentine powerhouses, Riquelme was called up for his first senior game with the Argentine national team to face Colombia in a World Cup qualifier in 1997. Riquelme’s impactful performances continued in the 1997 U-20 World Cup in Malaysia, where he scored four goals in the tournament and led Argentina to their third title. Riquelme’s influence on the Boca team grew in subsequent years, becoming an integral part of the team that won the Argentine Primera División title three years straight (1998, 1999, 2000) and the Copa Libertadores in 2000 and 2001, taking the Argentine Footballer of the Year Award in those years as well. His performances in his formative years increased his potential to be a world star, and in November 2002, he signed with Barcelona in an €11m deal.
Unfortunately, Riquelme suffered a poor spell with the Catalan giants. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal barely insisted on playing him, and when he did, it was out of position as a winger (akin to his treatment of Juan Mata in today’s game). In 2003, he was shipped out on loan to fellow Spanish top flight club Villareal, where alongside Diego Forlán he played his best European football. At the end of the 2004-2005 season, Riquelme was awarded Most Artistic Player by Spanish magazine Marca, and the following year led his club on a ferocious run in the UEFA Champions League. That season, Villareal went undefeated in their Champions League group consisting of Manchester United, Lille, and Benfica, with Riquelme pulling all the strings from the middle of the park. “The Yellow Submarine” went on to beat Rangers and Inter Milan in the Round of 16 and the quarter finals, Riquelme again showing off his undoubted quality as a world class playmaker, before tragedy struck in the semifinal against Arsenal where he had a potentially game-tying penalty saved by Jens Lehmann that would have sent the game to extra time.
Although a rueful moment for Riquelme, he must remain proud that he played such a key role in putting Villareal, an ordinary mid-table club, on the European map. Riquelme would soon forget his travails, however, as he was called up in Argentina’s 23-man squad that summer for the World Cup in Germany. He would wear the fabled No. 10 shirt and start every game, making several key assists as he led Argentina to the top of their group, past Mexico in the Round of 16, and against hosts Germany in the quarterfinals. However, he did not have the chance to play past the 72nd minute, when he was substituted and Argentina went on to lose on penalties.
In 2007, he was sent out on loan back to Boca Juniors due to tense relations with the club’s board and manager, Manuel Pellegrini. He would continue playing for his boyhood club until 2012, winning the 2007 Copa Libertadores and being named Argentinian Player of the Year in 2008 and 2011 for guiding Boca to the championship, when he quit Boca before rejoining them in 2013 and moving back to Argentinos Juniors in 2014.
Why is this all important? Why focus and look back on Riquelme’s illustrious career now? It is because on January 25, 2015, exactly one month ago, the legend announced his retirement. As fans of the beautiful game, we hate to see our favorite players, the icons of the global game, have their careers slowly spiral downward until they inevitably draw the curtain. We as supports, in the past year, have seen legends like Henry, Zanetti, Seedorf, Giggs, and Puyol retire, never to grace the professional game again with their presence, and now we can add another legend to that list. But this is the cycle of football: welcoming new players with promise and potential from humble beginnings, watching their meteoric rise to fame and status before eventually returning down to Earth as humans, albeit humans who can score goals like these:
(Enjoy Ray Hudson’s commentary, too!)