Saturday, June 23, 2007

no place like home: the past, present and future of Juan Roman Riquelme

(Picture swiped from
The Argentine press had repeatedly asked him whether the final victory would put an end to his spell at Boca, but the midfielder didn’t want to talk about the subject.

“I’m very happy, I’m very happy”, he responded when asked about his plans.
Punditry and fan opinion is sharply divided on Juan Roman Riquelme, especially amongst Argentina supporters. I think it's probably fair to say that the non-Argentina supporting press are far more admiring about him than the actual supporters. I'm one of his many strong admirers, but that doesn't mean I'm blind to his faults. It does mean that I'm willing to give him the credit he is due, and at least try to explain his issues as well.

the story so far

Even when at his peak in Europe, there were those who insisted that Roman's best days were back at Boca Juniors, under Carlos Bianchi, right after the turn of the millennium. The many honours he won during that time, both personal and as part of a great Boca team would seem to back that up. Before a combination of reasons led to Roman leaving for Europe, La Bombonera was his home in every sense, and many would say that he's never found anywhere to equal it since. Having seen him play amazingly for Boca this season, I'm starting to believe that.

However, there seems to be a tendency for current evaluations of his talent to dismiss his European adventures, which is an astounding bit of revisionist history. Leaving aside the Barcelona years, in which he was brought by a crazy president for a coach who didn't want him and didn't play him, I think it's hard to argue that his first 3 seasons at Villarreal were anything but a great success.

In the 02-03 season, Villarreal finished 15th. In 03-04, Roman's first season, they finished 8th in La Liga and went out in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, losing to regional rivals Valencia, who eventually won the trophy. The next season they finished an amazing 3rd in La Liga and again reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup. (Villarreal qualified for the competition by winning the Intertoto Cup both times.) In the 05-06 season, they gained international recognition by making it into the semi-finals of the Champions League in their first ever season in the competition, eventually going out to Arsenal by a single goal. Their Liga campaign suffered from the priority placed on the European stage, and they finished a reputable 7th.

Least anyone forget, Villarreal were only promoted to the first division in 2000. Prior to that, the club spent all of its time - bar one season - in the lower divisions. The town in which the club is based has a population of less than 50,000. The club's upturn in fortunes came when Fernando Roig decided to invest in the club, bringing in a succession of South American players who proved successful. While Roman was not the only player responsible for Villarreal's rise, he was certainly widely acknowledged as the most important.

Why did I bore you with the above two paragraphs, you ask. Because it's a self-contained argument against the statement that Roman came running back to Argentina because he couldn't cut it in Europe. Wrong. The European press spent the 05-06 season practically salivating over him and expressing surprise that he wasn't more highly rated. I'll come back this point later. For now, we continue with the story.

Various injury-related and other, less tangible problems plagued Roman as the 06-07 season opened, and led to both a loss of form on the pitch and a falling out with the coach off it. Eventually, they came to the decision to off-load him, and Boca came in eagerly for their prodigal son in the January transfer market with a loan deal. There were some initial struggles, but it seems that La Bombonera does indeed suit him in every way, and eventually Roman began to show some of the form they still remembered from his last stay. The rest, as they say, is history.

MVP of the final series and second highest scorer of the Copa Libertadores, I don't think anyone would protest the statement that he was the player of the tournament. Roman showed all his usual talent in controlling the tempo of a game, finding a killer pass and scored some fantastic goals. His deadballs were as deadly as ever. For those of us who were saddened by his downward spiral in the 06-07 season and heartbroken by his departure from Villarreal, the sight of him playing so well again is a great comfort.

However, there are fresh questions over Roman's future. I'll discuss his recall to the national team in another post, but on the club front this is a time of instability for him. Villarreal have made it clear that they don't want him back, while being open to amiable negotiations of some kind from interested clubs. Boca have consistently said that they can't afford him for more than the six months he's already been there, but now that the reunion has been so successful, there are rumours that he wants to stay and will try to swing negotiations in that direction. Otherwise, there will no doubt be European clubs interested in trying to convert Roman's particular brand of magic to their own use.

understanding Riquelme

In the previous section, I've recapped Roman's club career so far using facts and statistics. This section is based on my own conjecture, which while based on fact is still only speculation, and definitely not meant in anything other than the most admiring manner.

Many of the positive profiles of Roman that I've read in the press go into his rather unique personality. He possesses a type of reticence that is fairly rare amongst footballers, especially attacking, showman-type players who have teams built around them. The only two other flair players I can think of who have similar personalities which causes difficulties for them professionally are Sevilla's Jesus Navas and Barcelona's Leo Messi. The former has anxiety attacks and chronic homesickness to the extent that he has walked out on training camps within Spain because they were too far away from Seville. (So take any transfer speculation surrounding him with a pinch of salt.) The latter would seem to have no problems in his club career, but his extremely reserved nature complicated his integration into the Argentinean national team, especially while at the 2006 World Cup.

Roman suffers from what might be termed a sensitive and depressive personality where traumatic events - like missing the penalty that would have sent Villarreal into the Champions League final and Argentina's exit from Germany 2006, along with the associated criticism of him within the press whenever he plays for the national team - affect his mood and by extension, his form. (If you read the Argentinean press, this is nothing new.) He can only play well when he feels comfortable and happy. When Villarreal were accomodating of him and built their team around him, he was fine there. But the aftementioned penalty incident soured that.

Something about being at Boca seems to curb the depressiveness, at least at the moment. Therefore, I can only hope that he stays there. It's so good to see him smiling and playing his best football again. Long may it continue.


Saurabh Bhattacharjee said...

A wonderful attmept to understand Roman. It is very balanced and yet sympathetic. It is nice to read articles on the personalities behind the dazzling skills of the footballers.

linda said...

Thanks! I read a lot of things written about Roman and just wanted to put my own point of view across, I guess. :-)

Saurabh Bhattacharjee said...

I am being hopelessly torn apart on Roman's future. One pat of me wants him to stay at his 'spiritual home' Boca and the selfish part in me wants him to go to Europe so that we in India can watch him every week.

linda said...

Yeah, I feel the same way. Above all, I want him to keep playing at his best, but it's a shame that Argentinean league games are so hard to come by overseas.