Wilson: The end of Riquelme's era

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson gives his take on the end of Juan Roman Riquelme's era at Boca Juniors.

Football News: Juan Roman Riquelme Boca Juniors

There had been rumours before the game, of course; rumours that oddly didn't present the sense of shock they should have done. Once, if it had been suggested that Juan Roman Riquelme was on the verge of quitting Boca Juniors, there would have been outcry, fans would have taken to the streets raging at the desecration of an ideal; before Wednesday's Copa Libertadores final there was disappointment and concern, but no anger. The sense was of resignation; there was a realisation that the lack of shock probably meant that it was about time for Riquelme to move on.

The veteran centre-back Rolando Schiavi referred to Riquelme as "the last idol of the fans" and spoke of trying to convince him to stay for one more season, a line echoed by the club president Daniel Angelici.

The truth, though, is that there has been friction for several months.

The 34 year old has held a position of unique power at Boca and as his playing ability wanes it became harder and harder for coaching staff and directors to accept that.

Riquelme is not just a player; he is the cipher for an ideology:

graceful of movement and deft of touch, he is the embodiment of the old-style enganche - literally the "hook" who links the midfield with the attack. Not for him the modern arts of closing down defenders; he created, and created only, and that made him a glorious anachronism.

"Riquelme's brains," said the former Argentina forward Jorge Valdano, "save the memory of football for all time... he is a player of the time when life was slow and we took the chairs out on the streets to play with the neighbours." Perhaps Riquelme's mournful demeanour reflects his knowledge that he was born out of his time.

Perhaps no position is so fetishised in any country as the enganche is in Argentina. The enganche, the columnist Hugo Asch wrote, is "a very Argentinian invention, almost a necessity". The playmaker, he went on "is an artist, almost by definition a difficult, misunderstood soul.

It would, after all, hardly seem right if our geniuses were level-headed"; it is as though they must pay a price for their gifts, must wrestle constantly to control and to channel them. Certainly there is that sense with Riquelme, whose career has been characterised by fall-outs with high-profile team-mates and coaches.

"We are not," Asch wrote, "talking necessarily about a leader. Leaders were Rattín, Ruggeri, Passarella or Perfumo, intimidating people. No.

Our man is a romantic hero, a poet, a misunderstood genius with the destiny of a myth... Riquelme, the last specimen of the breed, ... only works under shelter, with a court in his thrall and an environment that protects him from the evils of this world."

Away from Boca, he was never quite the same. He was a flop at Barcelona and, although he was the principle reason Villarreal reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2006 (before missing a vital penalty against Arsenal) he ended up falling with Manuel Pellegrini and being despatched back to Buenos Aires.

To see him at Boca, at his peak, was extraordinary. I first saw him live when England beat Argentina 3-2 in Geneva in a friendly in 2005.

That night he was superb, prompting and probing, picking England's defence apart. When he went off with five minutes remaining, Argentina led 2-1 and the experiment of playing Ledley King as a deep-lying midfielder wads over for ever.  But to see him truly you have to see him in his natural habitat, playing for Boca Juniors in the Bombonera, at the court he holds in his thrall. I saw him there for the first time in 2008 in a Copa Libertadores tie against Cruzeiro and then again four days later in a superclassico against River Plate. He was excellent against Cruzeiro, poor against River. In both games there was a palpable thrill in the crowd when he came into possession, a sense of expectation, a desire for him to do something, anything even vaguely constructive so they could sing his name. Riquelme once commented that when his side lost, it was always his responsibility.

That is neither self-pity nor arrogance: it is simply the truth.

Watching Boca in those games was to be reminded of an excessively unionised workplace in which no one dares go beyond the precise remit of their job description. At one point in the game against River, Boca's holding midfielder Sebastian Battaglia, who headed the only goal and was generally excellent, won a tackle, steadied himself and began to advance into space, only to tap the ball needlessly to Riquelme when he reached the halfway line. He could have kept going, Riquelme could have made a run, there would have been options: but that is not the way things are done at Boca.

And that perhaps is why Riquelme provokes such extremes of emotions.

He plays constantly under the pressure of creation, which perhaps explains the mix of defensiveness and timidity in those dark, blank eyes. There are those who will him to succeed and those eager to condemn him when he fails. And partly because of the prevalence of 4-3-1-2 in Argentinian football, partly because of the love of the enganche, he has never changed and never tried to change.

That's why Marcelo Bielsa largely ignored him when he was national manager. It's why team-mates have so regularly fallen out with him: when Martin Palermo, another Boca legend, retired last year he said it wasn't just because of his age but because he couldn't endure another season with Riquelme. And it's why Riquelme cannot get on with Julio Cesar Falcioni.

Falcioni has transformed Boca. He ended a four-season trophy drought last year with the apertura title, setting a new record for the fewest goals conceded. He threatened to quit in February though following a clash over style with Riquelme after a 0-0 draw away to Zamora in Venezuela. Boca lost their next two games, including an astonishing

5-4 defeat at home to Independiente that served to strengthen Falcioni's hand. And that was the key thing here: sympathy once would have been all with Riquelme, but as his star fades there is an acceptance that Falcioni's pragmatism may be more useful.

In 11 seasons with Boca spread over 16 years, he has won five league titles and three Libertadores. He has defined a style of play. But there has been a sense for a while that his time was passing; now it has passed.



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