Sunday, February 11, 2007

A heavy-hearted goodbye: Juan Roman Riquelme leaves La Liga


For those who have read my previous writing on Argentina before, my reaction to the news that Juan Roman Riquelme the depressive genius had finally given up on life in the Spanish league and returned to Argentina is probably quite predictable. I'm heartbroken, just a bit.

The terms of the deal, in black and white, are these: Boca Juniors, who were Roman's benefactor (and he theirs) before Villarreal, have taken him on a five-month loan.

I don't think he'll be back, not in any meaningful sense. His fairytale in European football ended the moment he missed that penalty. Yes, that damned penalty in the semi-final against Arsenal last season. That damned penalty, taken by a man with the look of someone damned in his eyes, saved by Jens Lehmann, of all people.

After that, he went to the World Cup and played beautifully, and I, who had merely been an admirer before, fell in love with his slow motion genius - the passes, the set pieces, the intricate scheming, and even the sorrow, which never really seems to leave him.

But Riquelme has always been loved and hated in equal measure, especially in Argentina. That's perfectly understandable - his is not a style to everyone's taste.

In Argentina, the weight of expectation on the shoulders of the number 10 is enormous, far more than a man can bear. Maradona did it, but look at what happened afterwards; Ortega is still battling his demons in public, even today; Aimar has always been brilliant but too brittle, with his countless setbacks and wildly inconsistent form; and then there's Riquelme, whose performances are dependent on mood, and who has always been moody.

That has proven his downfall at Villarreal, a club where his stay has been highly successful for both parties. Villarreal would not have finished third in La Liga or gotten into the semi-finals of the Champions League without him, and he would not have enjoyed a career revival without the support and trust he had at the club. He once won awards for best foreign player, most artistic player - and this in a league with Ronaldinho and (at the time) Zizou. But it's all over now.

Perhaps I'm being pessimistic. Perhaps Roman will find himself again, back at his old stomping ground, where some say he played his best football ever at the turn of the century. But I don't think he'll come back.

That's enough wailing and garment-rending from me. Just to conclude, I wanted to quote some passages from articles about Riquelme. He was always a pundits' favourite, but these passages encompass both the positive and the negative sides of his game, and I thought that was fitting.

Former Real Madrid and Argentina striker Jorge Valdano:
A friend of mine calls him "tollbooth" because when the ball passes through him it has to stop. It's a jibe I don't subscribe to but it helps to define him in football terms. The rhythm and direction of play will depend, to a great degree, on Riquelme's level of inspiration. And Riquelme is not always inspired.
Argentinean football journalist Marcela Mora y Araujo
[Vs Serbia and Montenegro] Riquelme was the axis, constant and steady like the beat of Tula's drum, calmly setting the pace, playing like only he can.

For him football is the same always and everywhere. He plays the way he plays and if you don't like it, that's not his problem.
Jason Cowley in the Guardian:
Very occasionally a player emerges in world football who, in style and method, defies categorisation. He is the player who invents his own idiom, plays in a manner and at a tempo that is entirely his own...At this World Cup we have Juan Roman Riquelme of Argentina, the outstanding player of the tournament so far, and the one stylistically most unlike any other here in Germany.

...in many ways, he is the closest thing football has to a quarterback, the most influential and glamorous position in American sport. The quarterback is the creator, the player who invents the game as he goes along. If it means passing back or sideways, in order to progress, so be it. Because what Riquelme has, above all else, is patience...
Sid Lowe in the Guardian:
Riquelme is a difficult, introverted character, porcupine-prickly, a man who needs constant reassurance and has to live entirely on his own terms, who utterly lacks the normal trappings of vanity but is vain nonetheless. Villarreal knew that and created the perfect environment for him.

...it has become impossible to exaggerate his importance, his centrality to Villarreal. He may not run defences ragged like Maradona but he does run games. In his own way he is as dominant. [In the 04-05 season] Riquelme picked up 13 man-of-the-match awards, scored 14 goals and provided 15 assists, more than any other player in the top flight.

"We play to Riquelme the way we played to Zinedine Zidane at Juventus," says Alessio Tacchinardi. "Whenever we have the ball we just give it to him," adds Senna, while Arruabarrena rates him as one of the five finest players in the world. "Román," he says, "carries the team on his shoulders."
Goodbye, Roman. I still like the Yellow Submarines, but it won't be the same without you.

4 comments:

risingson said...

Such a shame to see such talent go to waste. Riquelme doesn't belong in a league that isn't at his level. Since his loan is 5 months, I think it indicates the possibility that Riquelme is waiting for a team to show interest. In all likelihood, Riquelme will stay in Argentina where things are easier and he's probably less questioned.

But I do hope he returns to Europe and dedicates himself to winning something. Although just typing that seems silly. As his penalty kick miss and his loss in the World Cup and his mom's state, seems to have knocked the wind out of his sails. I can't picture him being that motivated anymore.

Let's hope Argentina rejuvenates him...

Lynda said...

Oh, Linda, I'm right there with you on the Riquelme sorrow. During that Champions League match I fell in love with all the same qualities you mention here--a match I went into with a kind of lukewarm support for Arsenal and emerged from a Villarreal fan--and the World Cup clinched it. Luckily we get Boca matches here but I really hope to see him back in Europe.

linda said...

risingson: I agree that he will probably stay in Argentina - he always seems happier there. But if he can get his form back, seeing him kick ass in the Argentinean league would be brilliant too, especially since Boca need a saviour right about now (I'm unbiased in the Boca-River rivalry, but I'm almost starting to feel sorry for Boca after last season).

Lynda: You guys get Argentinean league games? Hopefully you guys can keep the rest of us posted on how he's going, then - how many wrinkles can you count in his forehead in a given game, and of course whether the famous goal celebration (cupping his ears with his hands) reappears or not. ;-)

Seriously, I'm crushed. But I wish him well.

Mohit said...

Its usually the ability to handle pressure, unbearable pressure, that separates people who could have been great and the truly great players. Hence Riquelme, no matter how incredible a talent he may be, will always be at the fringes of greatness.