Juan Roman Riquelme: The misunderstood genius

Ryan Benson

Much like natural life itself, football is an ever-evolving world which is constantly developing and changing in some way. Whether that relates to technological advances, rule changes or even the extinction of specific player roles; football always feels the need to push itself that bit further.

The ‘sweeper’ is a role which has more or less vanished, certainly in its purest form. You may get a centre-back who sits slightly deeper than his partner, but specifically positioning a defender to play in that way has long since disappeared. And the classic No.10 role looks to be following suit, as the sport swiftly becomes more and more towards physical prowess.

Therefore, it is perhaps unlikely that we will ever get to truly appreciate a player of Juan Roman Riquelme’s style in Europe again. Even before his retirement he was considered one of the last of a dying breed.

What made Riquelme so remarkable was that he was by no means an athlete. He would not fit anyone’s idea of what a professional footballer was like in terms of his work-rate and, as such, in some circles he was less of a “misunderstood genius” and more of a passenger.

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Riquelme would probably be the first to acknowledge that physically he was slow, languid and perhaps even laborious, if only in the aesthetic sense. But his brain was razor sharp; his feet the possessors of the most graceful touch; his vision incomparable.

He may not have been a great physical specimen, but his attributes made him the perfect No.10; a real thinker.

He was very much a player that coaches built their teams around or simply discarded. He had to contend with the latter in his early days for Argentina when Marcelo Bielsa – purveyor of a swash-buckling, intensity-inspired system – was in charge, as well as at Barcelona under Louis van Gaal.

It is perhaps because of Van Gaal that Riquelme isn’t quite regarded as highly as he should have been by the football world, as the Dutchman was reluctant to sign him from Boca Juniors in the first place and then opted to play him from the flanks, where he was destined to fail.

Had he arrived at Barca a few years later and become a part of Pep Guardiola’s ‘tiki-taka’ revolution, Riquelme would have won the titles and acclaim his talent deserves.

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But, perhaps his cult status is more befitting of a player of his ilk. Riquelme was never one for the limelight – a simple, uncomplicated man who wanted to play football, and at Villarreal he did that, and was nothing short of a revelation.

Riquelme played for Villarreal on loan from 2003 until 2005, before joining permanently and then eventually leaving in early 2007. It was during these years that Europe got to miss one of the best at work, essentially putting a tiny town and club on the map.

His inspirational 15-goal form helped them finish as high as third in the 04-05 LaLiga season, and they went on to reach the Champions League semi-final the following year, ultimately narrowly losing out to Arsenal after Riquelme saw a penalty saved by Jens Lehmann.

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Riquelme’s impact at Villarreal was felt long after his departure and will forever be remembered as one of the main catalysts for their rise from also-rans to being among the country’s most respected clubs.

His lack of trophy-measured success will result in his legacy being somewhat less than others nowhere near as talented, while his one World Cup finals may contribute to that too. But real football fans will appreciate his memory.

After all, there was a reason that Zinedine Zidane specifically waited around after his final Real Madrid match to collect the Argentinian’s shirt.


Have a look at other clubs who held players back from more success…


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