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Schoolyard Stories: Juan Roman Riquelme

2002 was the first year that I started to understand the beautiful game. After being introduced to my beloved Manchester United through family members, United held my entire focus for the first few years. The heartbreak of losing out to Arsenal in the league and Leverkusen in the Champions League was softened by Ireland’s heroic 2002 World Cup display. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was my hero for the first few years as he was responsible for putting the ball where it counted and to this day, I don’t think I’ve seen another striker like him.

As my footballing knowledge expanded so did my ability to enjoy watching other players play. I enjoyed collecting rarer football shirts than the standard Premier League teams and European giants. I suppose this had something to do with the player whom I remember so fondly from my youth. Juan Román Riquelme.

I first encountered him on RTÉ’s coverage of the 2005 Confederations Cup where playing for Argentina, he managed to notch three goals in five games. The following year he played a pivotal role in Villarreal’s Champions League heroics. Assisting the winner in the quarter-final 1-0 victory over Inter Milan and being the villain as he missed the crucial penalty vs Arsenal in the Semi-Finals. He played a vital role for Argentina in the 2006 World Cup wearing the number 10 shirt and creating 4 goals in his 5 appearances.

I remember the first time encountering him during the Confederations Cup. Who was this unknown player amongst so many famous and well-known players? As with the rarer football shirts, I think I enjoyed knowing and understanding the “rarer” footballers.

I suppose what drew me to Riquelme was his amazing ability to make the game look easy. He oozed class. The sheer simplicity of his passing game and the way he used his strength and football intelligence to glide past players. His set-piece ability was second to none, providing perfect corners and precision free kicks. I was stunned that a man of his ability was not playing for one of the European giants. His time at Barcelona in 2002 was ridiculous, with him being subjected to rare game time and being played out of position. The foreign player rule in Spain at the time meant he had to leave once Ronaldinho arrived, with Villarreal being the lucky beneficiaries.

The return to Boca in 2007 will always be another mystery to me. The man was in his prime and just after a stunning World Cup campaign. In a sickening, personal discovery years later, Juan confessed in an interview in 2015, “The only thing I regret in my career was a decision that I took, when at the hotel in England before the semi-final with Arsenal, when Manchester United came to buy me and I said no.”

Despite this, it was incredible to see glimpses of Riquelme performing to his usual standards back at his cherished Boca. A stunning free-kick against arch-rivals River Plate comes to mind, look it up online if you haven’t seen it. He would also lead Argentina to a final of the Copa America as the tournament top scorer and a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics during these years, proving his quality once again.

I firmly believe that there never be a footballer so talented to not play at a European giant during his prime. The levels of performance Riquelme reached consistently with his country were a sight to behold. It’s just a shame he never truly hit the heights he could have at the club level.

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