Despite being unable to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007, Juan Roman Riquelme remains one of the main talking points among fans and journalists at the event. One man determined to focus solely on those Boca players able to participate is team coach Miguel Angel Russo, who insists the Xeneizes can take the title without their playmaking virtuoso.
On 30 November last, FIFA confirmed that, in accordance with Article 8 of the competition's rules, Riquelme was ineligible to take part in the tournament. Yet despite that, the emblematic midfielder remained the main talking point at Boca's press conference last Saturday in Tokyo.
"The absence of Riquelme is due to the fact that we didn't include him in the preliminary list of 30 players for this tournament, as we didn't think he would be with us. That's the truth of it. Nonetheless, we have confidence in the squad we've got and know we're capable of taking home this trophy," explained one of the club's vice-presidents, Luis Buzio, in a bid to draw a line under the matter in the international press. However, it was to prove wishful thinking.
"Will Riquelme's absence force you to change tactics?", "Will the strikers be starved of service without their provider?", "Will he be in Japan to watch the team?" were just a selection of the questions posed by Japanese journalists to Russo.
Showing remarkable patience and affability with the media's line of questioning, the coach left no one in any doubt with his feelings on the matter: "It's true Riquelme was a key man for us in the first semester of the year, when we secured the Copa Libertadores and the right to play in Japan. But so too were his team-mates, in whom I have the utmost faith. Boca have a great history, and we're come here to underline that once again."
Veteran Boca striker Martin Palermo, one of those to profit from Riquelme's sparkling service earlier in the year, echoed his coach's sentiment, saying: "Everyone's aware Roman is a great player who knows Boca to perfection. It's precisely because of this that he assumes such much responsibility and takes the pressure off us. But we also know what we're capable of achieving without him, with quality players who will do their utmost to replace him. Our dream is to return home with the title."
During Riquelme's last spell away from Boca at Spanish side Villarreal, the Xeneizes were eliminated in the Round of 16 of the Copa Sudamericana by Sao Paulo and could only manage fourth place in the recent Apertura Tournament won by Lanus. It is understandable, therefore, for both press and fans to speculate on just who should replace him in Japan.
Palermo, the team's captain and leading goalscorer, insisted Riquelme's absence need not be detrimental - even if his side only managed a solitary point from their last three outings in the Argentinian league: "What's going to matter is attitude, and we have to admit that there has been a change in that since we arrived here in Japan. What has happened up until now is in the past, and we now have a big responsibility ahead of us."
Also singing from the same hymn sheet was Sebastian Battaglia, who was adamant that Boca "would have to be focused for Wednesday's game to get the best performance. The champions of all the confederations are here, and so they deserve our respect, and I'm sure they will respect us too. God willing, we'll have another victory celebration in this country." If that were to happen, one Juan Roman Riquelme would be there to enjoy it, but only "as a fan", says Luis Buzio, who confirmed the player was scheduled to touch down in the land of the rising sun on the eve of Boca's opening game against Etoile Sportive du Sahel.