Juan Roman Riquelme's Career Was a Beautiful Journey Yet an Uncomfortable Ride

Guillem Balague@@GuillemBalagueFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2015

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Jorge Valdano would surely have become a poet had he not decided to dedicate himself to a life in football. He is, in fact, one of the best writers ever to have dealt with football. 

But few of the many things he has ever said ring truer than his wonderful description of his fellow countryman—the errant, wayward, indecently talented enigma that is Juan Roman Riquelme. This week, Riquelme decided that the time had finally come for him to bring the curtain down on his career.

"If you have to travel from point A to point B, everyone would take the six-lane highway and get there as quickly as possible," Valdano said. "Everyone except Riquelme. He would choose the winding mountain road that takes six hours but that fills your eyes with scenes of beautiful landscapes."

In a nutshell, that sums up Riquelme's footballing career—a beautiful journey, but a really uncomfortable ride.

Aside from the fact that he was probably one of the most gifted midfielders ever to come out of Argentina, the only thing everyone else seems to agree with is that Riquelme, the eldest of 11 children, born and raised in grinding poverty in San Fernando some 20 kilometres north of Buenos Aires, is about as prickly off the pitch as an entire colony of hedgehogs.

Consequently, he is not admired as much in Argentina as he is in other parts of the world.

Effectively hung out to dry by Louis van Gaal, who considered his signing by Barcelona a political one, it was at Villarreal where Riquelme really made his mark, putting the club on the map as they came stunningly close to Champions League glory in 2005-06.

At the Castellon club, everyone played around him and to his strengths. In the end, it was his behaviour and performances both on and off the pitch that shaped the club into what it is today.

Villarreal chairman Fernando Roig saw early on the potential of bringing in players from Argentina who were eager to ply their trade in Europe, where they would be remunerated in euros rather than with a downward-spiralling Argentine peso.

To that end came players like Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Juan Sorin, Gonzalo Rodriguez and, via Barcelona, the roughest of rough diamonds, the jewel in the crown, Riquelme.

A dream on the pitch, a living nightmare off it, Riquelme's first battles with Villarreal came when then-manager Benito Floro asked him to turn up 30 minutes before training so the physios could assess an injury.

Seemingly humiliated by this not-unreasonable request, Riquelme duly arrived 20 minutes late, ignored the physios and started to sweep the dressing room and polish the boots—obviously a way of declaring that, as far as he was concerned, the club considered him to be no more than a skivvy. 

An unimpressed Floro threatened to drop him when he repeated the procedure. Shortly afterwards, the manager was told to clear his desk.

Riquelme may well have won his battle with Floro, but he would lose the war when he clashed with his successor, the quiet, well-mannered, but assertive Manuel Pellegrini.

Roig had seen enough.

Up until then, the club had ignored the fact that Riquelme had flown planeloads of people to visit him at Villarreal, that he didn't train when he didn't feel like it and that he was frequently suffering from injuries, either real or imagined.

Riquelme returned from extended leave granted to him for the birth of his son and promptly announced that he was not going to train. 

Enough was enough. No one, said Roig, would ever again be bigger than the club itself.

"He will obey the club and fulfil his obligations—or else he'll have problems with me," Roig added.

True to his word, Roig loaned Riquelme out to Boca Juniors before finally selling the central midfielder to them in an extremely messy, complicated deal that typified the confusion and pandemonium that inevitably surrounded Riquelme. The deal involved Villarreal paying the player's €3 million wages for the 2007-2008 season while still receiving a transfer fee from the Argentine club for a reported $15 million.

Where to begin with some of the other stories about Riquelme?

There are many, not least the one that any interview he ever gave had to be accompanied by a negative statement about Diego Maradona because apparently the two don't get on. 

My own favourite involves the fact that Leo Messi and him happen to share the same birthday (June 24), albeit nine years apart. Riquelme was throwing a birthday party at a gathering of the national squad that both players were attending and that coincided with the date.

Messi arrived at his hotel room where all were gathered to wish him happy returns only to be told by Riquelme, "Who invited you? P--s off!!"

I often wonder what makes players so detached from real life—and if it is, at the end, our fault when they are.

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