Juan Román Riquelme: The submarine years

There are two minutes left in the Champions League semi-final and Villarreal are about to crash out to Arsenal at the final hurdle. But then Gael Clichy clumsily bundles over José Mari, who collapses to the turf, forcing the referee to call a penalty.

Villarreal’s talisman immediately makes his way over to the spot. Juan Román Riquelme picks up the ball, raises it to his face and kisses it. The midfielder whose talents know no end has the chance to revive Villarreal’s Champions League hopes. Behind the goal, an expectant sea of Villarreal yellow in El Madrigal wait to erupt the moment the ball hits the back of the net.

What stands in Riquelme’s way is Arsenal’s German keeper, Jens Lehmann, who has been an impenetrable wall the entire competition, keeping nine clean sheets in a row.

Riquelme, with his usual deadpan expression, stares down Lehmann as he prepares to take his kick. But it is Riquelme who blinks first. He aims a weak penalty toward the bottom right corner that Lehmann easily bats away. Riquelme is reaction-less, staring around in shock. Villarreal’s dream is dead.

* * *

Juan Román Riquelme may have squandered Villarreal’s golden chance to reach the Champions League Final, but he was the reason they were in the position to advance in the first place. When the Argentine joined Villarreal, they had just finished 15th in La Liga. Less than three years later, they had successfully forced their way into the upper echelons of Europe.

Villarreal added key members to their squad during that three year span, including the likes of Marcos Senna and Diego Forlan, but it was Riquelme–the heartbeat of the side–who was the lynchpin behind Villarreal’s meteoric rise.

Riquelme’s career at Villarreal epitomized his footballing career in general. There were periods of grace and excellence, but there were equally periods of frustration and ill-discipline. So, how did he wind up at Villarreal, a little-known club on the eastern coast of Spain, with a population of just 50,000? 

Riquelme started out at Argentinos Juniors youth academy, known as ‘The Cradle of the Stars,’ and it was clear from an early age that he was going to be a star. Aged 18, he was snapped up by Argentinian football giant, Boca Juniors and despite the added pressure of the ever-increasing buzz around his name, Riquelme flourished at La Bombonera. The mercurial midfielder notched 44 goals in 194 games, but it was his overall artistry in the middle of the park that was most impressive. His mesmerizing dribbles and elegant passing set him apart from other midfielders, while his eye for goal and wicked delivery from set pieces made him a truly special player.

Riquelme did not suit everyone, however. In Argentina, those opposed to his casual style of play called him pecho frío–meaning cold chested–because of his lack of work ethic. Marcelo Bielsa was one of those critics, as Riquelme hardly featured for Argentina under the manager’s tenure in charge of La Albiceleste. Bielsa preferred his players to carry an all-action dynamism to their game, something Riquelme lacked. Bielsa’s successor, Jose Pekerman, had a different view. When critics called Riquelme slow, Pekerman responded by saying, “He’s not slow when he’s in possession. It’s the ball that should do the running.” And that is exactly what Riquelme did: he ordered the ball around the pitch, leaving opposition players chasing his elusive shadow. 

A transfer to Barcelona materialized in 2002, as the Catalan giants snapped him up for €11,000,000. Unfortunately for Riquelme, the move was a failure from the start. After he signed, manager Louis van Gaal claimed that he did not want Riquelme, stating it was a “political transfer.” When Riquelme’s son was born shortly after his arrival in Catalonia, van Gaal presented the baby with a Barcelona kit before telling his new signing, “He’ll probably get to wear it more than you wear yours.”

Riquelme is the type of player who needs the team tailored around his style of play. That never happened at the Nou Camp. Naturally a number ten, Riquelme was often deployed on the left wing by Van Gaal. For a player without the blessing of pace, nor adept at tracking back, he was destined for failure. Riquelme wound up finishing the season with three goals in 30 games and a host of sub-par performances as Barcelona finished a lowly 6th. The Argentine’s departure was soon to follow. 

* * *

Despite receiving offers from RCD Mallorca and Real Murcia, Riquelme was eager to make the switch to the Spanish east coast to reunite with his former Boca Juniors team mate Rodolfo Arruabarrena at Villarreal. Barcelona agreed to ship him off on a two year loan, and when he arrived at his new club, he found himself in a familiar and comforting environment. Villarreal had five other Argentine’s on the books, including a Uruguayan, a Bolivian, an Ecuadorian and a Brazilian. Every Friday following training, the players would meet for Argentine grill. Riquelme also decided to change the name on the back of his kit to the more personal, Román; the same name his mother calls him. Villarreal was quickly becoming a home away from home.

In turn, Villarreal were rewarded with good performances from Riquelme. The club finished in 8th place at the end of their new number 8’s first season, thanks in large part to Riquelme’s eight goals in 33 games. Villarreal also went on an admirable, semi-final run in the UEFA Cup. Riquelme contributed throughout the competition, particularly in the Round of 32 against Galatasaray, where his commanding performances and two goals helped Villarreal notch a 5-2 aggregate win. They were eventually knocked out by Valencia, but it was the first piece of evidence that Villarreal were ready to make noise in Europe. 

Despite the on-pitch success, not everything was going well behind the scenes. After Riquelme picked up an injury in January 2004, manager Benito Floro asked him to turn up prior to training so the medical staff could assess his injury. Riquelme responded by arriving thirty minutes late and ignoring the club’s medics. He began to sweep the dressing room floor and polish boots in protest until he re-joined the rest of the squad in training. The same series of events unfolded three days later. Floro, who was now furious with his star, threatened to leave him out of the team. Riquelme responded by ringing the club’s director and demanding to play. Floro was sacked by the end of February. 

The 2004/05 season was arguably the finest of Riquelme’s career. In 35 La Liga games, he scored 15 goals and assisted nine, helping Villarreal finish in a club record 3rd place. By the end of the season, Spanish newspaper Marca awarded Riquelme the Most Artistic Player award, which is even more impressive when you realize he was handed the honor in the midst of Ronaldinho’s absolute zenith. Riquelme also earned a nomination for the 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year award and spurred Clive Tyldesley to argue he was a cross between Zidane and Nedved.

“Strong enough to protect the ball, elusive enough to disappear with it, Tyldesley said. “Delicate touches and crashing shots.” 

Riquelme’s teammate Alessio Tacchinardi went so far to say, “Román is a footballer from another galaxy.”

* * *

Floro’s successor at Villarreal, Manuel Pellegrini, often lined his team up in a tight 4-2-2-2 formation with Riquelme deployed on the left-hand side behind the striker. Unlike his time at Barcelona, Riquelme was given free license to roam, and would frequently cut in from the left and build up play in more central positions.

Marcos Senna was often stationed at the base of Villarreal’s midfield, tasked with breaking-up play and passing to Riquelme, who was free to feed the ball to the club’s ravenous new striker, Diego Forlan. It is no coincidence that in his first season in La Liga, Forlan won the Pichichi with 25 goals. Forlan said that Riquelme was “a big reason” he decided to join Villarreal after leaving Manchester United.

By the time of Forlan’s arrival, Villarreal’s squad was perfectly suited to Riquelme’s abilities. Energetic players like Sorin would effectively do Riquelme’s running for him, dedicating their talents to winning the ball back for the team so that their number 8 was able to solely focus on working with the ball at his feet.

Riquelme became the Yellow Submarine’s periscope, seeking out the best path forward and guiding the ball further up the pitch into dangerous areas. Even when the view of the periscope was clouded by a fleet of on-rushing defenders, he still found a way to maze his way through, or knit a pass between multiple defenders. He was unquestionably Villarreal’s talisman. 

Riquelme’s quality was most evident in a matchup with his former team in January 2005 when Villarreal ran out 3-0 winners against eventual La Liga champions Barcelona. Riquelme shone as he repeatedly picked apart Barca’s defense, which only conceded 29 goals that entire season and included the likes of Carles Puyol, Rafael Márquez and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. 

The first goal came in the 30th minute when Forlan sprung through a Barcelona challenge and passed to Riquelme, who deftly laid the ball back into the Uruguayan’s path before he crashed the ball into the net. The second goal was once again orchestrated by Riquelme’s right boot, as he whipped in a fierce ball from a free-kick that center back Gonzalo Rodriguez thumped into the goal with his head. Rodriguez and the rest of the yellow cavalry charged over to Riquelme, but his face was blank, as it always was. It was clear to everyone, though, that he had found his home at Villarreal.

Forlan added a third before Riquelme was substituted off with minutes to go. No doubt Pellegrini wanted the architect to hear the appreciation of the home fans. They reciprocated by hailing “Riquelme, Riquelme, Riquelme.” A hero was born. 

* * *

Riquelme wasn’t able to replicate his 15 goals the following season, but he still notched a respectable 12 in just 25 La Liga games, on top of providing 10 assists. His lack of games was clearly felt, though, as Villarreal fell down to 7th place by the conclusion of the 2005/06 season. Riquelme still continued to dazzle and amaze on the biggest stage, as over-achieving Villarreal managed to reach the Champions League semi-finals.

Pellegrini put more emphasis on the defense during that Champions League season, setting up in a 4-3-1-2, but also set the team up to ensure Riquelme could thrive. He played in the hole behind Forlán and José Mari, while a strong trio of Senna, Sorín and Tacchinardi set up behind their Argentine orchestrator. Riquelme actually missed much of the group stage through an ankle injury, but Villarreal’s rigid back line saw them top their group with ten points, conceding just one goal. 

Riquelme made his return against Rangers at Ibrox in the Round of 16 first leg. He immediately made an impact, slotting home a penalty after just eight minutes. Moments later, the playmaker nearly created his team’s second after curling an inch perfect free kick into the path of José Mari, whose effort was well saved. The second finally came when he cushioned a header through the Rangers defense that Forlan pounced upon before slotting home. Despite the two away goals, Villarreal left Ibrox with a 2-2 draw.

Back at El Madrigal, after finding themselves trailing 1-0 after Peter Lovenkrands scored for Rangers in the 12th minute, Villarreal were counting on Riquelme to bring them back. He delivered in the 49th minute. After receiving the ball from a throw in on the right-hand touchline, the Argentine touched the ball down before eluding two Rangers players and passing to Forlan, who found Arruabarrena, who slotted home. The match finished 1-1 and Villarreal progressed to the quarter-finals to set up a meeting with Italian giants Inter Milan. 

After losing 2-1 at the San Siro, Villarreal were faced with an uphill task in order to progress. Although he started slowly, Riquelme grew into the second leg, slithering past the likes of Esteban Cambiasso and Juan-Sebastien Veron as Villarreal began to dominate, following periods of concentrated possession from the first minute. The breakthrough finally came in the 58th minute after Riquelme floated a free-kick into the Inter box that Arruabarrena headed home. It seemed like fate. The man who helped Riquelme join Villarreal scored the season’s most important goal because of Riquelme’s playmaking.

El Madrigal erupted at full time with a sea of ecstatic fans decked in yellow deliriously celebrating the club’s most memorable European victory.

Before the semi-final tie with Arsenal, the Gunners’ manager Arsene Wenger heaped praise on Riquelme, calling him a “special player” who acted as Villarreal’s “quarterback.” Wenger tasked Gilberto Silva with shackling Villarreal’s main man and he succeeded, limiting Riquelme to a few pot shots from distance in the first leg, which Arsenal won 1-0. Once again, Villarreal were tasked with turning the tie around at El Madrigal. 

The Yellow Submarines dominated the second leg from the off. Riquelme pulled the strings as he sprayed balls into the feet of Franco and Sorin, although neither could conjure any chances. The minutes ticked by, and as the game progressed, Villarreal slowed. The match looked like it would end goalless, but then Clichy bundled José Mari over in the penalty box two minutes from full time.

Once the chaos from the penalty decision died down, Riquelme picked up the ball and kissed it before placing it on the spot. After a hard run up, he opened his body and caressed the ball toward the bottom right corner. Lehmann read it the entire way and parried the ball away, leaving Riquelme glued to the ground, completely shocked. How could he, a player with limitless ability, miss from 12 yards? 

Minutes later, the full-time whistle blew and in a rare show of emotion, Riquelme lifted his shirt into his mouth and trudged off the pitch, glum, forlorn and defeated. Villarreal’s Champions League dream was dead. 

* * *

Riquelme was never the same player after that 2005/06 season. Pellegrini dropped him for the opening match the following campaign, which was the first time he had ever been left off the team sheet–for reasons other injury–at Villarreal. He went on to make just 13 appearances in La Liga, scoring a single goal.

Off the pitch, he continued to spur conflict. The club previously ignored Riquelme’s defiant behavior off the pitch. They turned a blind eye when he didn’t train, when he brought hoards of people to visit throughout the season and when he “suffered” from questionable injuries. But following his infamous Champions League miss, and the increasingly lackadaisical performances that followed, both Pellegrini and Villarreal director Fernando Roig had seen enough. Not even a year after that famous Champions League run ended, Riquelme was loaned back to Boca Juniors in January 2007.

The discussion surrounding Riquelme’s career in Europe is often centered around his low work rate and ill-discipline off the pitch, but it is important to praise his once-in-a-generation talent and unique style of play that catapulted Villarreal to unprecedented heights. Tim Vickery put it best: “Riquelme’s significance goes far beyond the list of clubs and titles. What he was, was a walking billboard for a certain style of football.”

Riquelme brought success and swagger to El Madrigal that will be impossible to replicate. He’ll forever be notorious for that penalty miss, but he deserves to be remembered as a club legend.

 

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