Now 33 and arguably in the twilight of his glittering 15-year top-flight career, few would deny that Juan Roman Riquelme remains one of the most elegant and gifted creative midfielders of his generation. Cerebral, unerringly accurate from open play and set pieces, and a fine striker of the ball, the Argentinian schemer continues to bring these powers to bear for Boca Juniors – who he has just helped to victory in the 2011 Apertura.
Currently enjoying a well-deserved post-season break, as he recharges his batteries for Los Xeneizes’ assault on the 2012 Copa Libertadores, a trophy he has lifted on three occasions, the No10 graciously made time for an in-depth and exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: 2011 has been special for you for a number of reasons, including the fact that it’s now been 15 years since you made your professional debut. As a child, did you imagine you’d enjoy such a fine career?
Juan Roman Riquelme: To be honest, no. However, I used to imagine becoming a footballer, and that I’d try to get to wear the Boca shirt in the Bombonera someday, as my family all support this club. But I never dreamed I’d play for such a long time, nor that I’d be fortunate enough for people to be so fond of me here in my own country. It’s a really lovely feeling.
One of your biggest strengths has been the way you strike the ball so accurately. Was there anyone in particular who you modelled your game on?
I was lucky enough to grow up during the era of (Diego) Maradona’s, who all Argentinians consider the greatest player ever. After watching him play I used to run out onto the street with my mates, get the ball and pretend that I was him. I’d be commentating on myself and saying “Maradona has the ball”, stuff like that. Now that’s what my son’s like with (Lionel) Messi: he starts kicking the ball and saying “Messi’s on the ball”. For people my age, Maradona is the main man. But for younger generations, like my boy, Messi’s their hero.
If you had to pick out two moments that have shaped your career, one positive and one negative, which would you choose?
I really enjoy those moments I get to spend with my team-mates, both in training or if we all go for a meal. But from the fans' point of view, I guess their fondest moments will be of a championship or cup win I was involved in. It’s hard to just pick one, right? If I had to choose the worst one though, it might be that semi-final we lost with Villarreal (against Arsenal in 2005/06). We were so excited about trying to reach that Champions League final, because we knew that Villarreal may never get the chance again. It was a really tough time.
You missed a key penalty in that game, but have you seen that incident again since?
Yes, I watch all the games I play in. I think we deserved to win that game, we played better than Arsenal. We played much better, we won a penalty and we missed several clear chances, while they didn’t create any opportunities at all. But, in football, when things don’t go your way there’s not much you can do.
A few months later you appeared at the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany. What did playing at the finals mean to you?
It meant a lot to me, it was the only major championship that I hadn't played in. There’s been a lot said about our performance at that tournament. Even though it ended disappointingly because we crashed out, you have to remember that we got knocked out without losing a game. I think we played the best football out of anyone there and I supplied more assists than anyone else at that World Cup. That was a great experience and so were the 2008 Olympic Games, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself (and helped Argentina win gold).
Looking back at that quarter-final defeat against the hosts at Germany 2006, what’s your verdict on the way that game panned out?
I reckon we had that game under control, don’t you think? It seemed more likely that Argentina would score a second than Germany would get an equaliser. You could see they were very tired, several of them had cramped up. But they managed to grab a goal after a move where the ball came to (Miroslav) Klose at the far post. And he’s phenomenal in the air, he’s better with his head than with his feet, and that moment changed the whole game. Penalty shoot-outs are a question of luck: their keeper had a good day and we ended up going out.
Jens Lehmann was between the sticks for Germany keeper that day, as he was for Arsenal in that aforementioned semi-final with Villarreal…
I wasn’t fortunate enough to take a kick in that World Cup match, though I would’ve loved to. I used to take my team’s first kick in penalty shoot-outs and it would’ve been a wonderful moment. I’m one of those who thinks that football players have to always put themselves in those situations where nerves are most frayed, where you can decide the outcome. But I’d already been subbed so I couldn’t play a part. And that was what stayed with me, the feeling that I’d be denied the chance to take that penalty.
That particular penalty shoot-out was even more memorable because of the piece of paper Lehmann consulted between penalties…
There wasn’t anything written on that piece of paper.
There wasn’t anything on it. It was all about delaying the kicks that bit longer and making our penalty-takers think he knew where they were going to shoot. For example I remember that (Esteban) Cambiasso struck his kick at medium height, which he’d never done in training. But Lehmann still guessed right, which doesn’t add up. In my opinion the piece of paper had nothing on it, but in any case he did a good job; he was very sharp in the way he tried to put our players off.
Let’s talk about what you’re like off the pitch. Do you watch many matches?
Yes, I watch everything I can: Argentinian football, European football, national team games...
Is there a team you particularly enjoying watching?
We all like watching Barcelona. They’ve been fortunate enough to bring together a group of players the likes of which will never be seen again in Messi, (Andres) Iniesta, Xavi, (Gerard) Pique... all in the same team at the same time. It’s a stroke of fortune, but they’re a real joy to watch.
How do you beat a team like that, is there any secret formula?
It’s difficult. If you come up against them in a knockout cup tie or over two legs and luck goes your way then you can edge past them. But they’re very unlikely to be beaten in a longer competition, like a league championship. I think the only coach who’s managed to beat this Barcelona team is the guy who’s at Getafe [Luis Garcia], who beat them 1-0 recently and managed a draw with them last season when he was at Levante. That says it all. Barcelona and Real Madrid, though they have different styles, are both way ahead of the rest.
When you watch this Barcelona team, do you wonder what might have been had you signed for them at a different time?
When a team’s playing well and winning they exude a sense of calm and confidence. It’s a pleasure to watch them play. I joined them in a year when there were elections at the club and a lot of internal problems, a lot of anxiety. But now I’m here, where I want to be: Boca are my club and my home. I’m really enjoying where I am right now.
Speaking as a Boca player, how did it feel to see River Plate go down?It’s all about perspective. The Boca faithful celebrated it like we’d won a trophy ourselves but for me, as someone who loves football, I think it was a bad thing. It’s like if Barcelona or Real Madrid were relegated in Spain – it’d be bad for La Liga. El Superclásico is the game everybody looks forward to most and we won’t get to play it this year. Let’s hope River can bounce back quickly so we can enjoy those matches again.
Which are the current players that you most admire?
Messi is the greatest, the best in the world. Cristiano Ronaldo is like the ideal Playstation player, the kind that can score with his right foot and his left. Plus he’s fast, tall, good in the air, scores penalties and free-kicks and is skilful. But the one who plays the game best is Iniesta: he knows exactly when to go forward and when to drop back. If he’s got the ball out on the left he knows who’s out on the right. He picks the right moment to do everything: when to dribble, when to speed things up and when to slow things down. And I think that’s the only thing that can’t be taught or bought. You can learn how to shoot and how to control the ball, but being aware of everything that’s happening out on the pitch – that’s something you’re born with or not.
Iniesta is always fulsome in his praise for you too…
What happened was that I was fortunate enough to join Barcelona when he was in the youth team. He started training with us and I became very fond of him; we used to spend a lot of time together. He made his first-team debut around that time and we’ve got on really well ever since. We’ve always kept in touch.
A short while ago you stated that you were determined to appear at the next FIFA World Cup. Is that because your son asked you to?
Yes! (laughs) He’s nine years old, he really likes football and he knows the World Cup will be played over here (in Brazil). I’m just going to try and keep playing football. I know it’s going to be tricky and that I’ll be getting on a bit by then, but I won’t have lost any of my enthusiasm or desire to play at a World Cup. And if I’m not there as a player then I’ll go as a fan to cheer on our national team.
We’ve heard that you’ve got quite a collection of shirts from opposing players. Are there any that you hold especially dear?
I’m lucky enough to have a lot of shirts now, but if I had to pick just one I’d definitely go with Zinedine Zidane’s. I’ve got the shirt he wore in his very last home game for Real Madrid. The Wednesday before the game he called me and told me that he didn’t have mine and he wanted to swap shirts on Sunday. At the match, they subbed him five minutes from the end so the fans could give him an ovation and he stood there waiting by the touchline so he could keep his promise to me. It was a really lovely moment. I’ve got it displayed in my house, with the date on it. He was one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen.
Changing the subject completely, is your dad still your harshest critic?
Yes, he never thinks I play well! (laughs) For him, there’s always something wrong, but by being so demanding he’s really helped my game. Even if the press say I’ve had a good game, he’ll come up to me and say “if you’re that good, why’d you misplace that pass”. I think it’s good having someone there who always demands more from you. It stops you resting on your laurels and makes you want to always keep improving.
Finally, after so many years in the game, how important would you say football has been in your life?
Football’s given me everything. Just like little girls love dolls, the best toy I’ve ever had, or ever could have, is a football. The person who invented it is a true hero: nobody can top that.