When I first fell in love with soccer, I had a most unconventional upbringing. My footballing days were filled with sporadic training sessions with my club team, playing 1v1 soccer tennis in the backyard with my brother, and systematically destroying every single beautifully handcrafted goal my dad would put up for me. When it came to ingesting the game at the highest level, I was limited to highlight tapes and reading every magazine I could get my hands on. When the Internet brought its treasure trove of world football to me, I was in heaven.
Though I’ve loved the Dutch style of voetbal since I can remember, the joy in expression that South American players exude has always appealed to me. Their moves seemed natural, like something I might come up with on the street if I had been afforded the opportunity to play pickup every day against kids just as good or better than me. It was the type of pure quality I grew up seeing in college and NBA basketball, with the trickery and fun I saw in And 1 streetball. It seemed like home. More than anything, Ronaldo and Juan Román Riquelme epitomized that for me. Until I saw Riquelme play, I never fully appreciated the level of disrespect achievable in football. Sure, Ronaldo was embarrassing defenders and having a great time doing it, but he always kept the business side of things in mind, making sure to score after he was done toying with the pawns sent after him. Riquelme was just out there making opponents look like cones for fun. Repeatedly. And they knew it.
Coming from a basketball upbringing, I enjoy the art of embarrassing opponents more than I would ever care to admit. When I play today, I try to curb my desire to be Hot Sauce, but in my head Duke Tango is screaming “THAT’S MY GODSON” every time I pull off a nutmeg or see an opponent’s ankles quiver after a step over. From an early age I developed an intense and emotional bond with passing and crossing the ball, but the urge to send someone crying to their car after a vicious flip-flap often becomes too difficult for me to resist.
Riquelme was streetball personified. The day I saw him pull off a 360 backheel nutmeg, the limits of what was achievable with a football at my feet instantly became obsolete. The fact that it was done near midfield, with no other intent than to shame his defender made it infinitesimally better. Riquelme had the audacity to try and beat the same man over and over just so that man never would forget the day he was doomed to attempt to mark smoke. He had the audacity to do try it, and the ability to do it. And then do it again. And again. Every time Riquelme stepped on the pitch, he played as if he was on the street with his buddies, talking trash with his feet, embarrassing neighborhood kids, and generally behaving as if nothing was on the line but bragging rights.
For me, it didn’t matter that Riquelme had the reputation of disappearing in big games. Not everyone is born to win the World Cup. Some are born to bring pure joy to fans in a different way. Juan Román Riquelme was the very definition of a prima donna playmaker. Unathletic, moody, at times lazy, with a penchant for disappearing when he felt like it, Riquelme did what Riquelme wanted. Tell him to play further up the field? He might tell you and your mother to engage in the sort of action that’s still illegal in some parts of the American South. But he had the juice. Good God, did he have the juice.
I practiced Ronaldo and Riquelme’s moves for hours. I didn’t get them all right. I didn’t get most of them right. But I sure as hell tried them. Occasionally I tried them in games, sometimes I tried them in practice, but mostly I just tried them in my backyard. And failed. And failed again. In my failings, I gained even more of an appreciation of what this man Riquelme was doing. He was doing magic, and he was doing it against some of the best players in the world, in front of one of the most raucous crowds in existence. He was the magician of the Bombonera. He was the people’s magician.
When I read about his move to Barcelona, I was ecstatic. At the time, my love for all things Dutch and my obvious appreciation for Barcelona through that, made me incredibly excited to see how he fared in Catalunya. It didn’t go well, but Barcelona’s loss was my gain. My sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to visit Spain with my Davidson College team, and was able to watch Real Madrid take on Villarreal at the Madrigal. I was emotional enough to have the opportunity to watch my heroes Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, and Roberto Carlos alongside Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and more. No less exciting however, was the presence of Juan Román Riquelme in midfield for El Submarino Amarillo.
It was incredible. Sitting amongst the Villarreal fans, draped in a Villarreal scarf, immediately in front of their drum section, I could barely hear myself think, but I could see EVERYTHING. Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane discussed corner kick strategy with the flag just a few dozen yards away from me. Ronaldo’s night ended early, but his (then) heir apparent Robinho had a few scintillating touches. And Riquelme. Riquelme floated around, taking as much time as he needed on the ball, nearly heedless of Thomas Gravesen yapping at his heels, despite the Dane’s obvious attempts to unsettle him. There was also a little fellow named Santi Cazorla who put in a good shift for Villarreal, but all my focus was on the man himself, Riquelme. The ease with which he played the game is something I’ve never been quite able to grasp, and something I’ve only seen in a handful of players, Ronaldo and Zidane included.
Juan Román Riquelme’s career has ended, and with it, we’re left with a legacy that can be viewed through a number of lenses. Riquelme was equal parts wizard and children’s party magician. He, as Kevin McCauley so aptly put it, was a man who failed his teams spectacularly when it most mattered, but was only able to do so by dragging them to that position in the first place. Football’s closest current comparison is Mesut Özil; a man who has the same penchant for brilliance and highlights as he does for disappearance when it seems to matter most, but in reality, there is only one Riquelme, and his ilk will likely never be seen again. Juan Riquelme is a throwback to a time when playmakers trotted in a 15 meter radius, sported beer bellies, shaggy unkempt hair, and no one said a damn thing because they were good enough to pull it all off. Riquelme played the modern game at his own pace, and he made it look as if it was a Sunday League match. Things will never be the same. Long live the king.