Riquelme's triumphant return
Anyone wishing to exemplify the rejuvenating power of football need only examine the case of Juan Roman Riquelme. Having endured a second half of 2006 to forget, the visionary midfielder headed back to his native Argentina in early 2007 in a bid to resurrect his career. And what a move it turned out to be.
Fresh from playing a starring role in Boca Juniors' sixth Copa Libertadores triumph, Romy has also been welcomed back into the Argentina fold, with whom he now awaits his side's opening match at the Copa America 2007 in Venezuela.
Read on for the story of Riquelme's remarkable eight-month journey from Villarreal outcast and international retiree to Boca main man and returning Albiceleste.
Well-trodden path to Spain
Juan Roman Riquelme was born on 24 June 1978 in San Fernando, Buenos Aires, and took his first steps on the footballing ladder at Club Parque (as did Fernando Redondo, Carlos Tevez and Esteban Cambiasso among others) before joining Argentinos Juniors youth set-up. There he stayed until 1996, when capital giants Boca Juniors paid US$800,000 to secure his services, then-coach Carlos Bilardo giving him his first-division debut that very same year.
By the time he left the club in 2002, Riquelme was the darling of the Xeneize fans, leaving an impressive trail of trophy wins behind him. With Romy pulling the strings in the middle of the park, Boca made off with three domestic league titles (the Apertura 1998 and 2000, Clausura 1999), two Copa Libertadores (2000 and 2001) and the Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup in 2000. In the latter success, the blue-and-gold No10 tormented the mighty Real Madrid on Japanese soil, with the massed ranks of Merengue players simply unable to get the ball off him.
Perhaps it was the legacy of that magical performance in Tokyo that persuaded Madrid's rivals Barcelona to lay out US$13 million to take him to the Camp Nou two years later. "I'll be back one day, I promise," said Riquelme before heading to Spanish shores. His luggage may have been laden with winners' medals, but this on-the-field virtuoso remained as shy as ever off it.
The 2002/03 campaign would prove far from easy for the Argentinian maestro, with the then Blaugrana coach Louis Van Gaal failing to warm to his languid and cerebral style of play. The situation changed little upon Frank Rijkaard's arrival in the Barça dugout, the signing of Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho further limiting Riquelme's chances of a regular first-team berth. Desperate for further involvement, both parties agreed on a move to up-and-coming La Liga outfit Villarreal, initially on loan.
His arrival turbo-charged the Submarino Amarillo, who at the time were preparing for that summer's UEFA Intertoto Cup. Under the guidance of Chilean strategist Manuel Pellegrini, Riquelme became the heartbeat of the team that won the competition two years running. The best was yet to come, however, as Villarreal stormed to a third-place finish in the 2004/05 Primera División behind traditional heavyweights Madrid and Barça, and earned a place in the 2005/06 UEFA Champions League. "I feel happy here and I'm doing what I enjoy most: play football," he said at the time.
Looking back, this achievement appears to mark the beginning of the end of his spell in yellow. Despite going all the way to the last four on their first-ever appearance at that level, last-gasp drama in Villarreal's semi-final second leg against English side Arsenal would blot Riquelme's copybook forever. Needing a solitary goal to take the tie into extra-time, the Spaniards pummelled the Gunners throughout without being able to force a breakthrough. Awarded a penalty in the 89th minute, set-piece specialist Riquelme stepped up to the spot, only to see his weak effort comfortably saved by keeper Jens Lehman.
The Submarino Amarillo supporters were quick to forgive their dejected idol, although the relationship between Romy and Pellegrini appeared stretched to its very limits. The final straw would come after the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany.
When Jose Pekerman was appointed Argentina coach in 2004, taking the reins from Marcelo Bielsa, few doubted that Riquelme would go on to become a fixture in the side. After all, Pekerman had nurtured the midfield schemer through the national team youth ranks and together the pair won the FIFA World Youth Championship Malaysia 1997.
Soon established as the lynchpin of Pekerman's new-look Albicelestes, Riquelme's role would divide public opinion the length and breadth of Argentina. For some, a player of his class and undoubted ability should be a certain starter. For others, so-called " Riquelme dependencia", with everything channelled through his wand-like feet, removed any element of surprise from Argentina's play.
The debate continued to rumble on, even as Pekerman prepared his troops for an assault on Germany 2006. Going into the showpiece event as one of the favourites for the title, Argentina's bid for glory was ended at the quarter-final stage by hosts Germany. Pekerman, who had thus far defended his pupil to the hilt, substituted the playmaker with the Albicelestes still ahead and in control of the game. How much this affected Riquelme's mindset in the months that followed, only he knows.
Upon returning to Villarreal, the tension between Riquelme and Pellegrini continued to grow unabated. Having used the former Boca and Barcelona man in just 13 games, the Chilean finally snapped. "If he doesn't change his attitude, I'm not playing him again," stormed Pellegrini. The man himself continued to train with his team-mates, before watching their games solemnly from the stands.
While this was going on, another devout Riquelme fan, returning Argentina supremo Alfio Basile, called the player up for the first game of his second stint as national team coach. In a friendly game in London, the Albiceleste were emphatically beaten 3-0 by rivals Brazil, whereupon Romy was once again subjected to a barrage of criticism.
Days later, the beleaguered star had this to say to the assembled Argentinian press: "My mum's been admitted to hospital twice since the World Cup ended. I've got no right to make her suffer just because of my desire to play for my country." At just 28 years of age, Riquelme was gradually being driven from the game he loves.
'Great to be back'
At the turn of the year, rumours started circulating about a return to Boca Juniors, although serious financial obstacles would need to be broached. "He's a very expensive player," said the Xeneize board of directors. Nevertheless, Boca pulled out all the stops and the No10 duly arrived on a four-month loan. "I'm here to give it my all," he vowed at his official unveiling.
Riquelme soon brought all his class to bear, particularly in the Copa Libertadores. He played in 11 of Boca's 14 matches of a victorious campaign and notched a stunning eight goals, an average of 0.72 per game - a significant improvement on the average of 0.23 from his first spell at the club. "Over there (in Europe) I play the game much quicker. In Europe I got used to not holding onto the ball so much, to picking the right moment to get my shots off," explains Riquelme. "Over there you just control then pass, you can't run with it much. Here you get tackled a lot more."
Back on 20 June this year, with the Copa America looming large, Riquelme spoke out about his desire for a return to the national team fold: "Every time I watch the national team play it makes me want to be part of it." One day later, Basile called up the midfield sorcerer for the competition in Venezuela. "It's great to be back as it's something I missed. Now I'm going to try and enjoy the experience as much as I can."
Finally, what will the future hold for this footballing virtuoso? "I've felt really at home with Boca over the last few months, and I'd play there until the end of my days if I could. But I've got two years left on my contract at Villarreal and I have to go back. I'm now focusing on the national team and the Copa America. We've got the players to win it, we'll have to see what happens..."