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Juan Román Riquelme: Personifying the beauty of the beautiful game

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rgentina and sublimely talented attacking players go hand-in-hand, with fans feeling an insatiable affinity with their national sporting heroes like nowhere else in the world.

Following the retirement of the country’s favourite son Diego Maradona, the search for the next prodigy began almost automatically; Lionel Messi has filled the void to some degree.

Countless young raw talents have been labelled ‘the next Maradona or Messi’, but the term ‘the next Riquelme’ is one not often coined. It is not because of a lack of cult status, ability or prestige; far from it.

It is because Juan Román Riquelme is a unique soul.

The iconic attacking midfielder announced his retirement from the game earlier this year, which draws to a close a fascinating 18-year career where he delighted, bedazzled and amazed football fans, while frustrating and falling out with plenty of team-mates and coaches along the way.

Tributes the world over have come flooding in, with the football purists amongst us mourning the farewell of a player that bucked an unnerving trend in the modern game.

Speed, strength, stamina and power have become the key attributes in 21st century football; Riquelme had none of these virtues but is a player who best typifies the beauty of the beautiful game.

The San Fernando born man was a throwback to a legacy of classic number tens from the glory days of the sport and many will fear that Riquelme’s departure is the end of said era.

The Argentine’s guile, precision passing, deft touch, movement into space and subsequent use of it make him one of the most unique players of a generation, adored by the masses due to the mastery of his execution.

Over the space of 18 years, the classic Argentine number ten played for only four clubs and is regarded with legendary status at three of them.

Juan Román RiquelmeHis presence in the Albiceleste sometimes divided opinion but when at his best he was the fulcrum of a star-studded Argentina side.

Riquelme leaves the sport with a cult following but nowhere near as much success as he deserved. Despite the silverware he won not equalling his ability, the way this elegant and intelligent man played the game endeared him to the footballing masses.

The midfielder’s adventure started in the Argentinos Juniors youth academy and it is fitting that he ended his career with the historic club, playing a part in the side securing promotion back to the top-tier as his swansong.

Riquelme was quickly identified as a player of immense talent as a youngster and was snapped up by Boca Juniors as a teenager before even making a single senior team appearance.

It was at La Bombonera that the mercurial number ten would be catapulted into the limelight and held in the highest regard, with a mutual affinity between the player, the fans and the club.

Boca gave Riquelme his debut at 18 and helped him taste glory through five Primera Division titles, an Intercontinental Cup and three Copa Libertadores. His performances for the club propelled him to become a living legend to the fans, while he made his national team debut while he flourished with Los Xeneizes – with the national game fittingly at La Bombonera.

The star made his name during a six-year stint with the Buenos Aires outfit, before returning for seven more years after his time in Europe had come to an end.

Despite the calibre of players to wear the Azul y Oro in the club’s 109-year history, Riquelme takes pride of place in the fans’ hearts as one of their all-time greats.

In Boca’s 2007 Copa Libertadores triumph, Riquelme’s goals and assists were crucial in the Argentinians becoming South American champions; the playmaker scored three of the side’s five aggregate goals against Gremio in the competition final.

Even on the wrong side of 30, the gifted midfielder was enigmatic in Boca’s triumph in the 2011 Apertura; the club have not lifted major silverware since.

Like legend Maradona before him, Riquelme left his beloved Boca to sign for Barcelona, although the attacker will not appreciate the comparison given the pair’s mutual disdain.

A solitary campaign at Camp Nou in 2002-03 was a low point for the Argentine, who was not favoured by head coach Louis van Gaal and viewed as something of a luxury item.

The outspoken Dutchman refused to have Riquelme as the fulcrum of his Barcelona team, playing him out of position and negating his influence subsequently.

It is a real shame that the iconic midfielder was not given a chance to show his best in Catalunya, as the distinguished star and one of the world’s most historic clubs looked like an ideal pairing from the peripheries.

Four years at Villarreal rescued Riquelme’s European adventure and reminded the footballing world of his unique talents.

The Argentine joined compatriots Juan Pablo Sorín and Rodolfo Arruabarrena at El Madrigal, and played a defining role in leading the modest Castilian outfit to the proudest period in its history.

Juan Román RiquelmeRiquelme was the heartbeat of a Villarreal side that unbelievably rose to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2005-06, only to be knocked out 1-0 on aggregate by Arsenal.

The cruel irony of the Argentine having a penalty saved by Jens Lehmann late in the second leg, confirming the Spaniards’ exit, represents one of Riquelme’s lowest career moments.

Many fans will remember Riquelme most for his feats for the Argentine national side, where he made 51 appearances and scored 17 goals.

Although some of his most scintillating football was played for the Albiceleste, his fortunes depended on contrasting relationships with various national selectors.

Under Alfio Basile, Riquelme was made captain of Argentina, while former under-20’s boss José Pékerman also built the senior side around the number ten for the 2006 World Cup.

At the tournament in Germany, the Villarreal playmaker was the heartbeat of some breathtaking Argentine football, with a man-of-the-match performance in the 6-0 drubbing of Serbia a highlight of many Riquelme-lovers’ memories of the star.

An outstanding team goal is fondly recollected by football aficionados to this day; a stylish 24-pass move with Riquelme orchestrating play that culminated in Esteban Cambiasso scoring to evoke rapture on the terraces.

Riquelme was named as one of Argentina’s three overage players for the 2008 Olympic Games and led his nation to gold alongside young starlets such as Ángel Di María, Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero.

Although it is only a chosen few that are born with the calibre to play over 50 games for Argentina, there is no doubt that the playmaker should have ended his career with a substantially higher tally.

The master of his craft, Riquelme was impatient and downright dismissive of anyone who did not buy into his thinking of how the game should be played. Although this helped the star stay true to his principles, it isolated him on a number of occasions in national selection.

Enigmatic but opinionated coach Marcelo Bielsa had no room for the unique talent that the Boca Juniors man possessed during his reign as the national manager, robbing Riquelme of a presence at the 2002 World Cup.

Riquelme and Maradona, two of Argentina’s most distinguished and talented players, did not see eye-to-eye when the latter was the Albiceleste coach, with the midfielder missing another World Cup, in 2010, as a result.

As masterful and mercurial as the 36-year-old was on the pitch, his all-encompassing personality and unwillingness to compromise also saw Riquelme involved in public spats with team-mates and coaches that ended stints of his club career and destroyed personal relationships.

As well as the afore-mentioned Bielsa, Maradona and Van Gaal, the star was sold by Villarreal, despite being arguably their best ever player, due to falling out with the usually mild-mannered Manuel Pellegrini.

He antagonised and eventually fell out with his greatest partner-in-crime on the pitch, Martín Palermo, who he played alongside at Boca, Villarreal and with Argentina, while sharing the same birthday as Lionel Messi caused reported friction in the national side as the elder statesman craved the limelight.

There is no doubling that Riquelme was far from a saint. His unnegotiable philosophy and insistence on being the focal point in any team in which he was selected certainly ostracised some team-mates and managers, hurting the star’s career to a degree in the process.

However, when those around him bought into his ideals, acknowledged his completely unique ability, fed his ego and gave him the ball, the results were stuff of spectators’ dreams.

In a changing sporting environment that now encompasses technological advances related to training, nutrition and virtually every other part of the game, there is a fear that originality and ingenuity are being bred out of football.

Riquelme captured the footballing world’s imagination with his one-in-a-million ability and leaves the sport having encapsulated the romantic notion of how the game should be played; he will be missed.

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