Juan Riquelme: The Enigma, The Idol and Prodigal Son Returns to Argentinos Juniors
Juan Román Riquelme was always a personality that intrigued many in the soccer world. His unparalleled skill and penchant to virtually will the ball wherever he wanted made him such an attractive footballer to watch on any pitch he played on throughout his career.
In the next few days, when Riquelme is presented on the same Argentinos Juniors pitch where it all began as a young kid, many will look at what happened to his legacy at Boca and how it all turned sour.
Even as a player that was coming out of the streets of San Fernando over in northern Greater Buenos Aires, he was one of the young and up and coming players in youth football by the time he turned 13. That potential, unharnessed artistry, was beginning to be molded at the same place where a footballing demigod did just two decades before. La Paternal was the place where Riquelme would start to be talked about by many and it would be a move to Boca would be in the cards for him and his destiny would take that turn to greatness. But at times, his success ended up dividing opinions in Argentina.
Since his debut as a 17-year-old kid at La Bombonera, he was able to captivate the imagination of a fanbase and a footballing nation whenever he was able to conjure up his magic. Still if his style of play was engaging and able to seduce millions, his personality was often dry and even divisive.
His attitude was not the best one as Riquelme was often at odds with most coaches that he was under. He was at odds with Manuel Pellegrini at Villarreal, putting president Fernando Roig in a position where he backed the coach and left his biggest star out in the cold.
The same happened with Julio César Falcioni, when he chose to make the player more important that the squad. The night before the Copa Libertadores final against Corinthians, Riquelme came out and said he was leaving the Xeneize because he had ¨nothing left¨ to give to Boca. It was only after Carlos Bianchi returned for a third stint at the club that Riquelme’s tank of giving seemed full once again. That was only after the fans at La Bombonera gave their final verdict in a stadium that resembled a Roman coliseum and the 55 thousand-plus fans gave their collective thumbs down to the coach that just a year ago led them on the second longest unbeaten streak and the second unbeaten league title in history.
During that time, Falcioni and Riquelme fell out. The most telling moment was when the team was on the plane coming home from Venezuela and the two started to jaw at each other. Riquelme immediately called out Falcioni and his tactica, virtually taking away his authority within the club. What ensued was a year filled with finals appearances, finals losses and the ghost of Riquelme looming over a coach that was in no position to bargain. While Riquelme hung out with his friends and had a good time watching Boca struggle from afar, Falcioni’s shoulders felt the weight of obligation, which was too much for him.
Ironically, when Bianchi had him back, the player decided not to go to pre-season. Instead he made his decision to return to Boca when pre-season was about to come to an end.
Riquelme made the club jump through an endless amount of hoops in an effort to negotiate his continuity in La Boca. There were some truly unrealistic things that he was asking for in his new contract. The first one was a long-term deal. That to a 36-year-old player that missed half of his matches in the past six years, was beyond insane. Add to that the fact that the player was asking for a salary of US$1.25 million was even wilder in an Argentine league that is stretched to the max from an economic standpoint.
What makes this story even wilder is that Riquelme was asking for the club to pay his salary based on the “blue dollar” exchange rate. This is what is also a byproduct of the current situation in Argentina. The official exchange rate between the dollar and the peso as of the time of this article being published was at $8.15 while the unofficial, or blue dollar, is at about $12.25. If you multiply it, the difference in money was significant in pesos — which was what club president Daniel Angelici was mentioning since the first day and that the team’s economic sacrifices were tremendous when they offered the Boca idol a contract “no one in Argentina could offer.” Still was all for naught. At one point Riquelme might as well just asked for a gazillion dollars and the response would have been the same. Boca took Riquelme’s offer as rhetorical. He just threw out a number as well as a set of conditions that he knew the club would not accept.
For many that have seen Riquelme, it was just another pretense to be able to miss pre-season once again. This is why Boca were fed up. “The club is biggest than its idols, its board directors and its coaches, ” said Angelici when talking about the negotiations between both parties collapsed.
At that stage on Wednesday, it was quite apparent that Riquelme was on his way out.
While this was going on, Riquelme would go on television anytime he wanted to continue saying that the club did not show any love for him and the most important thing in his career was Boca and that the money was not that important.
Now Riquelme is going “home”. Argentinos Juniors will now become the most interesting team in the Nacional B – the Argentine second division. Their short quest has them poised to be looking to earn promotion into the wacky 30-plus team tournament that will be the first division when it begins next year.
On Sunday, a new era of soccer begins in two Buenos Aires neighborhoods. Boca will have to endure life without Riquelme, which is a big weight to get off your chest. Ironically in the last two league titles that Boca won, Riquelme’s role was reduced. In 2008, he was looking to return to Argentina, while in 2011 the club played some dominating football en route to their second undefeated title in short tournaments.
Meanwhile, Argentinos will look to shift the focus of attention away from president Luis Segura. Segura was under a great deal of fire after he was one of the AFA officials mentioned in the World Cup’s biggest story off the pitch of the last two weeks – the issue of ticket resales in Brazil. For Argentinos, the deflection of that bit of controversy will also be aided by the reinforcing of the defense and midfield with great cast players. Some, in the case of Matías Caruzzo, look to return to the club to be able to redeem themselves.
In the end, Riquelme agreed to similar terms that he had at Boca with Argentinos. That just further proves the mutual disdain Boca and their great idol had towards each at this stage of the proceedings. So much was their dislike for one another that Carlos Bianchi was not able to be an influencing factor in keeping him in La Boca for at least 18 months.
Maybe some will say that he will look to prove them wrong, like he did the night of his famous celebration in the direction of Mauricio Macri when he criticized him about his imminent move to Barcelona. The response was etched in Boca lore forever.
Román will look to many mouths, especially Daniel Angelici’s. The Boca president might have cost himself a chance to be re-elected after this whole negotiation was botched by the club. At this stage, Angelici’s administration will be known forever as the one that let Riquelme go — although some might say that Angelici and company were the ones that pushed Riquelme out the door to show that they had the power ultimately.
In the end, they will see that the one that had the true power is going to be wearing red. Meanwhile the “powerful one” showed once more that his pride surpasses even his playing ability. One thing is for sure, we better get ready for Sunday. Riquelme will not pull any punches and he will tell you so, in third person.