To some he is a genius, to some even a Messiah. To some he is a “political signing”, to some he is an unnecessary thorn in the path of progress. There are those who call him a vain, conceited person who was never destined to scale the peak of success and there are those who rue that his is a classic instance of true genius not fulfilling his potential.
And the striking part is that all of them are right in their own perspectives. Juan Román Riquelme is a genius, he is a Messiah (at least he was for a short period of time), he is a “political signing”, he is an inhibiting factor in a team’s development and he is a tale that leaves much to be desired in not much as not fulfilling the potential as in not taking the opportunities by the scruff of their necks when they threw themselves at his feet.
Juan Román Riquelme is Villarreal’s most unwanted man and the Argentine international knows it. So much so that he has already confirmed that he would depart to old and beloved Boca Juniors as soon as the January transfer window opens. No one at Villarreal loves him these days and Riquelme is more than one foot in the boat that sails to Argentina in the next month or so.
Yet the Riquelme-Villarreal love affair was never thought to imbibe a sour complexion anytime. In three and a half years that Riquelme has been at the club (actively that is), he has been President Fernando Roig’s best asset and the club’s best player ever. It was Riquelme, the Barcelona reject described by the then Barca manager Louis van Gaal as a “political signing”, who steered the Yellow Submarine to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2006. It was this tall Argentinian with deep sunken eyes and a tired expression forever lingering on his face who enacted the role of the club’s periscope as it struggled amidst dark underwater and guided them round the rocks into safety.
It was this player on whom Villarreal manager Manuel Pellegrini had built his team on, the player who was the axis around which all his plans rotated. It was this player who had inspired, driven and spearheaded modest Villarreal based in an equally modest Vila-real from a Spanish also-ran capable of stealing a UEFA Cup pass to one that had the genuine chance of stealing the Spanish league title. Indeed since Riquelme’s entry to the club in 2003, the club has gone from 15th to 8th, 3rd and 7th in the league.
But that same genius who was once at the heart of a surging Villarreal team that almost climbed the pinnacle of European club football is being walked to the exit door with glee and pomp. That same player who was once even more important than the club’s manager is now watching from the stands every single match that his team mates play. That same player whose import to Spanish and European football was observed as the advent of a truly gifted talent is now making an acrimonious exodus with no one bothering to even say so much as a goodbye to him.
But had Riquelme scored that last minute penalty against Arsenal at the El Madrigal in the Champions League semi-finals in 2006, the story would have been largely different. But sadly Riquelme couldn’t and so maneuvered Villarreal from the jaws of victory to the abyss of defeat. That was the precise moment when the Riquelme-Villarreal love affair embraced a meltdown. Riquelme lost his form for the remainder of the season and then so ruthlessly axed his own feet with his bizarre self-obsession.
If only it were a question of form, the matter could have been solved in no time. The problem with Riquelme ran deeper. With the collapse of Riquelme, Villarreal crumbled just as Argentina had folded in the 2005 Confederations Cup final against Brazil and against Germany in the 2006 Germany World Cup quarter-final when Riquelme had run out of steam. For Riquelme to perform at the peak of his ability, the team has to be built around him with him acting as the conductor of the band.
But Riquelme can be guilty of the downright ridiculous as he is capable of exhibiting the sublimity. Riquelme’s attitude, which President Roig and his ever serving patronage had only flattered to exacerbate over the years, was now coming to the fore. Coach Pellegrini had had enough with Riquelme when he arrived late from an Argentinean trip for the birth of his son in January this year and at that time he announced with the support of the Boardroom men-in-suits that Riquelme would better find a club should he be interested at all in prolonging his club career. For he would no more play for Villarreal.
And he hasn’t, for 8 long and heavily limping months. Villarreal might have suffered in the first few weeks of the off-loading of Riquelme to Boca Juniors in the January of 2007 on a 6-month loan period but bit by bit, brick by brick, card by card the Chilean reconstructed a Villarreal side built on Mati Fernandez, Cani, Marcos Senna, Giuseppe Rossi and Robert Pires, a side that currently occupies the third position in the Spanish league table with conviction. At the time when Boca were riding high on the Riquelme wave in the Copa Libertodoras, Villarreal were gliding through in La Liga, winning match after match (in fact, the Yellow Submarine won 8 successive matches), scripting the best ever end-of-season run in La Liga history.
Riquelme has come back from his Argentina expedition in the summer where he was at the heart of everything that Boca accomplished to win the Copa Libertodoras and even scored twice in the final against Gremio. Although Argentina’s national team coach Alfio Basile has kept him as his main midfield thread, Riquelme has been unable to steal his way into Villarreal’s first team. An almost done deal with Atletico Madrid fell just hours before the summer transfer window shut down and Riquelme has been ostracized into nobody-cares-where since then.
Now of course Riquelme is traveling back to Boca, where it all started. But in his trail he leaves a piercing regret that he couldn’t sustain his tempo. He arrived at Barcelona at a wrong time when the club was going through an epic drought and when the manager was a certain Louis van Gaal who considered his too slow to gel in European football and played him out of position on the right side of midfield. Villarreal was the perfect club for him at that stage and although he might have been a big fish in a small pool, for a certain time that big fish was the best in the business among any fish in any other pool.
Surely Europe has seen the last of a man who have had to go through much physical and emotional harassment in his life, both within and outside of football. Like most Argentine players, Riquelme had suffered a severely deprived childhood when at the tender of 10, football was not only the sole escape route from poverty but a obligation enforced by his Mafioso father involved in illegal betting rings. At 28, he had even decided to retire from international football because of his mother’s inability to absorb the stress. Riquelme has suffered so much in his life yet has enthralled the footballing audience that it would be a cold of heart of stone who would fail to acknowledge the truly brilliant player that he is.
Adieu Riquelme, may you enjoy success at your beloved Boca Juniors.