Romanism

Jaun Roman Riquelme was one of Argentina's greats. Whether his record supports that claim is beside the point. You only had to watch him to understand his talent.
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The frenzy wasn’t necessarily unique—La Bombonera gets frenzied quite often—but the occasion was. It was the first leg of the 2007 Copa Libertadores final and Boca Juniors were welcoming Gremio to the capital. The 40,000 rabid Porteños were there as antagonists. The cosmic kite himself, Diego Maradona, was there as emperor. Juan Roman Riquelme was there as the reason.

Even at 1-0, the match was controlled. That wasn’t the point. Instead, the point was solely to entertain and entrance. As Riquelme stood over the dead ball in the 73rd minute, the crowd simmered and time tensed like slackless razorwire threatening to snap. Riquelme, also moonlighting as the conductor, pointed towards his victims’ movements, partially as a mind game and partially as ritual. He already knew what was going to happen, as did the simmering crowd and the trespassing defenders.

The actual free kick was taken by Pablo Ledesma, though his contribution was merely to initiate with a backheel, thus laying the ball off to the lead. As the ball rolled fearfully into his path, Riquelme struck it through the stone wall of Gremio players and through alternate dimensions until it came out of the other end unblemished and into the back of the net. The crowd bubbled over in ecstasy. Fans, the ones who knew nothing more than Boca’s love, embraced each other in common gratitude; for each other, for Riquelme, and for football. La Bombonera had fully realized itself.

Just seconds after the wondergoal, the global television feed cut to a banner near-blasphemously displaying the deitous image of Juan Roman cupping his ears. Another banner revealed a message: “Romance de 4 meses, amor siempre.” “Romance for four months, love for always.”

The goal against Gremio stands alone as my favorite Juan Roman Riquelme moment, which feels like corner-cutting for two reasons: 1) It’s kind of like saying your favorite Christian Laettner moment was The Shot against Kentucky, and 2) it takes place at La Bombonera, which is basically a cauldron the universe is constantly stirring. Nevertheless, that moment in the 2007 Copa Libertadores final seemed like the ultimate fusion of the sport at its best taking place on one of its largest stages. It was exactly the kind of moment I hope to see when I sit down to watch a game of football. It’s an ideal I have within me: the need to be moved by sport, and for better or worse, I’m a slave to it. Watching that game, it was worth it.

Juan Roman Riquelme announced his retirement in January, bringing an end to his 19-year professional career. Over the past five or so years, I must have forgotten and remembered that Riquelme was still playing a thousand times. Moreover, I must have forgotten and rediscovered the man’s complete grandeur a thousand times too. Almost every recollection I had of the enigmatic Argentine ended with an all-night YouTube venture or Google image binge in hopes of finding more, anything, to soak in. I couldn’t help it—despite the unassuming hairstyle, the draping uniform, and the artless character, Riquelme was pure evocation on a football pitch.

But Riquelme only wanted to play his way. It was that attitude that led to multiple falling-outs with managers over his career. He overlooked by Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa for the 2002 World Cup. He was dismissed as a “political signing” by Barcelona gaffer Louis van Gaal that same year, and he fell out of favor with Manuel Pellegrini just months after Villarreal's improbable Champions League run in 2006. Most recently, he refused to be a part of Argentina’s 2010 World Cup plans because he and manager Diego Maradona did “not have the same principles.” Problems with authority—for both club and country—kept Riquelme from ever getting truly situated.

It’s these issues with head coaches that get to the core of what and who Riquelme was as a performer. He’s been labeled a prima donna for refusing on several occasions to play in a difficult position or a foreign role—Van Gaal famously played him as a right winger, which stripped him of any opportunity to use his natural skill-set. But Riquelme’s profiled disputes were almost always based on principle. In his eyes, his refusal to cooperate with opposing forces was only ever meant to service football. Though not just any football, the football he believed was honorable. He’s been called “lazy,” which is an unfair judgment. An elitist asshole? Maybe. But lazy? I’m not so sure.

It’s more appropriate to classify Riquelme as football’s greatest perfectionist, someone who yearned for the game to be fantastic and magical in his specific way. The same fervor that raised heaven and hell in Buenos Aires on so many matchdays drove him to damn the game and quit it if it didn’t meet his expectations. It’s that willingness, or audacity, to light the drag-backs and elasticos on fire right in front of us while we weep that we’ll miss the most. He may not have provided us with consistent entertainment, but he provided us with intermittent wonder in the only doses we could handle.

That’s not to say he wasn’t also a tragic figure. It was at the peak of his powers at Villarreal in 2006, playing against Arsenal in the Champions League semifinal, that we saw the tragedy of Riquelme in 3-D.

After an 0-1 Villarreal loss in the first-leg at Highbury, it was anyone’s tie heading into the second-leg at the Madrigal. Following a scoreless 90 minutes, Arsenal left back Gael Clichy clumsily took down Jose Mari in the Gunners’ penalty box in injury-time. Riquelme stepped up to take the spot kick that would have taken the match into extra-time, furthering the Yellow Submarine’s cinderella European cup run.

His shot was saved by Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann, though the German only deserves partial credit. It was an awful penalty kick, from the telegraphing, to the placement, to the force. And it was virtually the last touch of the game. No chances for redemption. Seconds later, the final whistle blew turning the Madrigal into a sea of tear-soaked Amarillo shirts enveloping eleven broken players. Riquelme has revered the moment: “It was one of the saddest memories of my career and one I will always remember.”

He had his failures, certainly, like the botched spot kick in the 2006 Champions League semifinal. But it would be unfair to sum up Riquelme’s career as a hope unfulfilled, especially if you’ve been privy to his domestic enterprises for Boca Juniors since 2007. Upon his return from Europe back to the club where he built his name, Riquelme immediately led the Bosteros to the 2007 Copa Libertadores title. He scored eight goals throughout the competition—including three in the two-leg final against Gremio—and was named the Player of the Tournament.

Still, if the plot points of Riquelme’s career frame a harrowing figure, the actual football distorts that view. Riquelme was as enthralling a playmaker as the game has ever seen. The skill packages available on the Internet today are merely a skimming off the top of the man’s abilities. The care he gave to the ball, whether it was in close quarters and between defenders, or whether he was sending it away to camp on an adventuresome set-piece, was rare and probably served as the last of a fleeting model. The model was unbridled craftwork carried out with unapologetic certitude.

Unfortunately, as Riquelme’s interest in being Shaman of the Hipsters fluctuated, so did my awareness of him. Every now and then I’d check in on the Apertura or the Clausura and notice without surprise that he was reenacting the Warriors summit scene with the Bombonera faithful. It would always bring a smile to my face to know that he was still shining and still beloved. If Carlos Tevez embodied the raw intensity of the Boca fans, Riquelme personified their infinite devotion. They were a perfect match.

Of course, Riquelme’s footballing journey didn’t end at Boca. After wayward negotiations with the club, he returned to the place of his youth, Argentinos Juniors. Almost twenty years after leaving their youth academy, Riquelme signed with his boyhood stable despite their prior relegation from the Primera. It was a final gesture of kindness to his old guard and one met with praise throughout the country, particularly when he guided them back to the top-flight. Though he didn’t see out the length of his contract, he never stopped being adored by fans in Buenos Aires.

And maybe those fans understood him best. Many will spend years trying, but there isn’t an easy way to talk about Juan Roman Riquelme. By varying accounts, he’s a genius, an egotist, an artist, a bottler, and, perhaps even, an inventor. To me, he’s a pulsating example of beauty and its most chief relatives. That rendering has, at one time or another, felt either hyperbolic or depreciative. Such is a misunderstood, stately subject like Riquelme. Parsing his vastness only serves to further emphasize how immeasurable his greatness was.


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