On paper, it is the perfect fit: Juan Roman Riquelme, a life-long fan of Los Xeneizes and arguably the most talented player plying his trade outside of Europe, and Boca Juniors.
After Riquelme fell out with Villareal boss Manuel Pellegrini in 2007, the former Barcelona man was loaned back to Boca for the 2007 Copa Libertadores campaign. Riquelme was in imperious form throughout the tournament and was named the Most Outstanding Player as Boca lifted the Copa for the sixth time in history.
After returning to Spain, Riquelme and Boca worked out an agreement with Villareal to see the playmaker return to Argentina full time in 2008, and although he led Boca to the Apertura 2008 title, his performances overall have left a lot to be desired.
Riquelme’s talent is not under question. The number 10 is probably the best player in Boca’s long history, and his performances for Argentina have been strong as well. Even though Riquelme left the national team halfway through World Cup qualifying due to a disagreement with coach Diego Maradona, he still was the joint top scorer and leader in assists for the Albiceleste during the qualifying campaign. Without his exploits, Argentina would have most likely missed out on the tournament.
With Boca however, Riquelme has spent a great deal of time injured, and when healthy, he has put in some great performances, but has been in constant conflict with club captain Martin Palermo and Boca have come nowhere near the league title over the last five tournaments.
Despite the club’s irregular form and Riquelme’s injury troubles, he was signed to a long term multi-million dollar deal in August that secures the player’s services for four more years.
The beginning to the new contract has not gone at all according to plan. Riquelme missed the first 13 rounds of play, but the whole time, his absence was an excuse for the team. Fans and players alike were convinced his return would solve all problems.
In his first match back, Riquelme played a great game, but the team lost 2-0 to Argentinos Juniors, before he limped off at halftime during a very poor loss to archrival River Plate. Now Riquelme is out until 2011, but Boca will keep paying his massive contract while he sits at home.
Sure, Riquelme is an idol at the club, but in Argentina clubs cannot afford to pay huge contracts, and Riquelme’s massive income means Boca is unable to buy players to enhance the rest of the team.
There are many good playmakers in Argentina such as Giovanni Moreno or Mauro Formica who would be available at less than half of Riquelme’s price tag.
It is also worth comparing Riquelme to Estudiantes captain Juan Sebastian Veron, the other high profile international plying his trade in Argentina. Veron has been an example on and off the pitch for Estudiantes.
He has played when hurt and has never caused problems in the dressing room. In short, Veron has been the ideal captain. He returned from Europe in 2006 on his own accord by breaking his contract with Inter so he could play for his hometown side. Veron did not come in with the expectations of earning European-type wages, his main goal was to become a legend.
With one league title, a Copa Libertadores, and a Copa Sudamericana Final, already under his belt, Veron is on the verge of winning the 2010 Apertura with Estudiantes as well.
It is not to say that Riquelme won’t return next year and achieve great things, but it is certainly a worry that the aging, often injured star is making a ludicrous sum of money, and thus far, has yet to deliver to the heights such a contract would demand.