Why so Many Brazilians Are Named After Argentinian Legend Juan Roman Riquelme

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IFebruary 13, 2020

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"[Riquelme] treated the ball with such kindness that it looked after him all over the pitch, with the humility of a dog kissing his feet." — Brazilian 1970 World Cup winner Tostao.

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

"I enjoyed football to the maximum. I hope the people have enjoyed it alongside me. I tried to have a good time." — Juan Roman Riquelme


There is a famous saying in South America that "Brazilians love to hate Argentinians, while Argentinians hate to love Brazilians," but when it comes to Juan Roman Riquelme, stereotypes and conventions rarely apply. 

The former Argentina international became a footballing legend during two spells at Boca Juniors, in between a dazzling spell in Spain for Barcelona and especially Villarreal in the mid-2000s.

Riquelme's unique, casual brilliance was a perfect example of jogo bonito (the beautiful game), but he never represented a Brazilian team in his career. Instead, fans in the country only ever got to watch him do damage to their teams. 

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And yet, take a look at the team sheets from the recent Copa Sao Paulo and you will see that, six years since his retirement, Riquelme's name still echoes all around Brazilian football...literally.

Attracting crowds of 10,000 fans, scouts from Europe's big guns and powerful agents, the Copa Sao Paulo opens the curtain to the football season in Brazil every January. It's the country's premier youth tournament, but it's also widely regarded as its most democratic.

This season's edition featured 127 teams from every corner of the continent-sized nation, pitching Brazilian giants against barely-heard-of minnows over three weeks across the state of Sao Paulo.

With no top-flight matches drawing attention, the Copinha, as it is affectionately known, is the main source of domestic football on TV in January. 

For many players, the U20 competition is seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get themselves into the limelight and, with some luck, earn a lucrative move.

Rewind a year, and Gabriel Martinelli found himself in that very position, making headlines with Brazilian third-tier club Ituano; now he's bagging goals for Arsenal in the Premier League. 

The Brazilian wonderkid is just the latest talent to successfully take a path that was also followed by the likes of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Casemiro and Marquinhos.

However, with over 3,000 teenagers hoping to achieve the same goal, it's not easy to stand out.

Riquelme Sousa Silva was among those who impressed this season, netting six goals in five games, including a hat-trick, to help Atletico Goianiense record their best-ever campaign in the Copinha.

Yet, as he had somehow been anticipating, most of the questions he took afterwards had nothing to do with his killer instinct inside the box.

"They were mostly about my name," he chuckles, explaining why he was christened after the Argentinian former midfielder.

"It was because of my uncle—he was a huge fan of Boca Juniors around the time I was born [in 2001], and then, one night, they say they were watching this Boca match and he asked my father if he could name me after Riquelme. My father accepted, even though he didn't know much about him and wasn't really into football.

"My mother had other plans for me, but eventually she consented too."

Raised in Aguiarnopolis, a countryside town in Tocantins state with a population of just over 5,000, Atletico's 18-year-old striker says he had never met any other Brazilians with the same name.

He wouldn't have had to look far in Copa Sao Paulo, though, to find a namesake.

In total, there were 12 boys named after Riquelme playing at this year's tournament—enough to field a whole team, with another Riquelme on the bench. 

All of them were born in the early 2000s, when Boca ruled South American football. Back then, the Buenos Aires giants won the Copa Libertadores three times in four years, thrashing Brazilian sides along the way.  

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - JUNE 14: Juan Roman Riquelme of Boca Juniors gestures during the semi final first leg match between Boca Juniors and Universidad de Chile as part of Copa Libertadores 2012 at Estadio Alberto J. Armando on June 14, 2012 in Buenos
El Grafico/Getty Images

No matter whom they played against, they looked invincible, much of it being down to Riquelme's elegance on the ball as he dictated their rhythm with his classic style. 

The way he played the game filled Brazilians with nostalgia because their own country seemed unable to produce old-fashioned playmakers of his ilk. "In the past, we used to have players like Riquelme," Pele reflected in an interview with Brazilian television in 2006.

This obsession contributed to the rise of what might be called the "Generation Riquelme" in Brazil.

They are all similar in name but separated by just a few letters, as highlighted during the Copinha: Among the 12 Riquelmes, there were some unconventional spellings, such as Rikelme, Rickelme, Rikelmi, Riquelmy, Riquelmo and even an Aimar Riquelme (mixing the Boca legend with Pablo Aimar, an iconic player for Boca's fierce rivals, River Plate).

Two of the Riquelmes featured for Cruzeiro and started together in a game during the group stage. It wasn't a unique situation at the club either. With five players named after Riquelme in their academy, Cruzeiro included four of them in a matchday squad last year.

The U20 team's coach, Celio Lucio, a former centre-back who won the Copa Libertadores with the club in 1997, deals with them in his daily routine.

"It isn't that difficult [to tell them apart] because they have different haircuts, don't play in the same position, and more importantly, they aren't all in the same age group," he explains, while admitting he is not the biggest fan of naming kids after greats.

"This whole thing brings a very big pressure on the athletes. I remember seeing a lot of boys called Lineker around. These are situations that should be handled very carefully, demanding some psychological work to make sure their names don't become a burden at some point."

According to the latest population census, taken in 2010, there are 622 Brazilians named after legendary English striker Gary Lineker.

That's nowhere near the popularity that Riquelme has reached, though, leaping from 202 registrations in the '90s to 14,037 in the 2000s. It represents a growth of 6,894 percent, the second-biggest among male names in the period.

The first one? Rikelme, which increased 10,057 percent after going from 26 to 2,641 babies in the same interval.

And it is not just football fans who have been giving their offspring the name of the Argentine maestro; footballers have been at it too. 

Former Porto and Brazil international goalkeeper Helton Arruda christened one of his sons Riquelme, while Ronaldo Angelim, a retired centre-back who scored Flamengo's Brasileirao title-winning goal in 2009, did the same. 

"He was a great midfielder, someone I enjoyed watching play," Angelim says. "But it was actually because of my ex-wife [Ricassia]. We had already picked a [football] name similar to mine for our first son, Ronald de Boer, so when we heard that our second one was coming, we named him after her."

Despite his baby face and general shyness, Riquelme, who many consider to be Boca's all-time greatest player, was a revolutionary in all senses of the term.

It's no coincidence that El Grafico magazine had him on one of its historic covers as Che Guevara. His die-hard fans call themselves "soldiers of Riquelme." They might have never realised, however, that his army was so big in Brazil as well.

Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, Argentina's leading sports columnist, has followed Riquelme since he broke through at La Bombonera in 1996 and fully understands the fascination he causes on the other side of the frontier.

"If Brazil is the home of artistic football, then, it seems logical to me, that they pay homage to the most artistic player we've had in recent times," Moores argues.

"[Diego] Maradona and [Lionel] Messi are from another dimension, famous on a much more global scale. Riquelme is a distinct phenomenon. He's admired by those who really get this game, who know he did impossible things not because of his excellent technique and skills, but because of his character, his dignity, as an artist of the ball.

"Therefore, it doesn't come as a surprise that when [Danielle] De Rossi was unveiled at Boca, he admitted having a WhatsApp group with different players, all of them midfielders, one of whom's photo was of Riquelme.

"For that reason, I assume he had such impact in Brazil. Not just because his most memorable masterclasses were against Brazilian clubs in decisive matches, but also for standing for a type of football that no longer exists, from the past, one where the ball was moved around and the player didn't need to run so much. Perhaps, this explains this nostalgia about Riquelme.

"Like Zidane, they have a beautiful name, an artistic one as well: Zinedine and Roman."

While Brazil have a whole generation of Riquelmes coming through their youth ranks, it's just as curious that the same will never happen in Argentina while it's not an accepted name at the country's registration offices.

The closest they will get are the 193 boys named Juan Roman in 2002, a time when the Boca Juniors idol was destroying Brazilians and spreading the legend that makes his compatriots still refer to him as "the last great No. 10." 

Brazil, however, may be gearing up to strike back with their very own Riquelme in the near future.

              

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves.