Juan Román Riquelme – The Unnoticed Legend

Being unnoticed implies a certain negativity. If someone goes overlooked, it implies a lack in value or a failure to deviate from the accepted norm surrounding it. People are very rarely astonished by what is normal.

For many, both past and present, Juan Román Riquelme is one who has gone unnoticed. Probably only his notable move to Barcelona in 2002 and Olympic Gold medal win at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 will have pierced the sensationalist Premier League-centred British media platforms, leaving his very existence largely unbeknownst to the majority of footballing fans in the UK.

Riquelme embodies the brilliance of the unnoticed, as not only has he gone unnoticed in terms of attracting headlines but also his style of play left him as a silent dictator of his teams’ fortunes – while his impact wasn’t always obvious, he remained integral to every team he played in.

In modern football, he should be considered close to unique, primarily because he was able to achieve brilliance in an inconspicuous fashion. While the recognised legends of his era, such as Zinedine Zidane or Ronaldinho, may be considered ostentatious as a result of their individual moments of brilliance, the Argentine achieved this yet in a defter manner, shying away from personal plaudits and instead internally revelling in the acclaim for the numerous successes of his teams.

What facilitated his ability to do this was the employment of him as an ‘enganche’ in his team’s tactical system – an attacking midfield role which has largely died out due to it being perceived as ‘luxurious’ and inefficient. In essence, an enganche is a pivot whose role is to dictate the tempo and pattern of a team’s play. Its main duty, therefore, lies in its distribution, with it having to switch play to either wing or play the ball through to strikers, and it is for this reason Riquelme excelled as an enganche.

His ability to play an ‘eye of the needle’ pass is still almost unrivalled, whilst his ability to play tidy short passes in crowded spaces allowed him to link plays with profound efficiency. Riquelme’s role has thus been likened to that of a quarterback in American Football, yet the comparison to an orchestral conductor seems more appropriate given the elegance which the Argentine oozed.

The tendency of an enganche to drift is the consequence of the need for it to come looking for the ball. This enrages many managers, such as Louis van Gaal, who deem the drifting of the player as undermining the disciplined structure required in a midfield.

Van Gaal, in fact, publically disapproved of Riquelme’s signing for Barcelona, saying openly that he thought it to be a ‘political signing’, and telling the Argentine openly to abandon the maverick tendencies of an enganche, as he told him “You’re the best player when you have the ball, but when you don´t we play with one less”. Riquelme made only 30 appearances for Barca, scoring six goals, spending the majority of his time in Catalonia stifled out wide or on the bench, yet his career in Spanish football was revived at Villarreal under Manuel Pellegrini, who understood the importance of Riquelme’s abstract tendencies.

Part of van Gaal’s concerns were that Riquelme did not have the pace or physicality to track back and defend. To a limited extent, van Gaal was right, Riquelme possessed neither the blistering pace nor the brute strength of many of his more renowned counterparts, yet this makes him even more impressive. Instead of bustling past players, Riquelme would leave them motionless, using his footballing nous and inch perfect ability to manipulate the ball to hold off and beat opponents.

For these reasons his creativity became unavoidable and Riquelme became vital to almost every team he played in. At Boca Juniors, he won 11 major tournaments in three spells, while following his disappointing spell at Barca he brought significant success to Villarreal, including a Champions League semi-final appearance. Although I may have portrayed an image of Riquelme being unjustly spared of any recognition by the footballing hierarchy, he has won a plethora of individual awards, such as Argentine Footballer of the Year which he has won on four occasions.

Hence, one must question why a player, whose career was undoubtedly successful, is barely remembered by the football-following population, particularly in the UK? Footballing snobbery would suggest it is the narrow-minded and unsophisticated fan, obsessed only with eye-catching superstars, which is at fault. In reality, this is unlikely, and while many fans may set their horizons beyond only watching Premier League, it is only those most dedicated who would notice and appreciate the ‘Yellow Submarine’ in La Liga, yet alone Boca Juniors in the Primera División. Furthermore, many spectators in Argentina refer to Riquelme as both a legend but also as an artist on the pitch, and it would be verging on prejudice to imply that all Argentinians understand football better than those in Britain.

This hence points to it being the fault of the British media, who, to my mind, dedicate a meagre amount of attention to European leagues beyond the fortunes of those stationed at the top of the table. But furthermore, the depiction of superstars and their narratives exclude the likes of Riquelme, who openly and deliberately shied away from attention and spoke of his refusal to smile whilst playing. Of course, the talents of the ostentatious best must be appreciated but it does come at the expense of the likes of Riquelme.

This won’t bother the subtle maestro, who is still widely heralded by many Argentinians as one of the best of his generation, and is revered in equal measure by fellow professionals of not only his generation. In particular, Boca fans have particular admiration for a player who played over 300 times for the Xeneizes, becoming a legendary talisman in the process. Boca was the main scene of his triumph where he won five Argentine league titles and he may feel aggrieved that van Gaal’s obstinate stance taken towards him at Barcelona halted his rise to stardom which could have come at one of Europe’s biggest clubs – he certainly looked the part when Boca played star-studded Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup in 2000, where his manipulation of the European Champions’ defence opened the eyes of many to his potential.

Whether we’ll ever see a player of Riquelme’s ilk again is yet to be seen. It would require him to poke his head out of the swathe of players unnoticed and under appreciated by modern football. In the meantime – thank you Juan Román Riquelme, for not only being one of the great playmakers and being considered as one of the last true ‘number 10s’, but for also demonstrating the excellence which exists in the unnoticed.