El Enigma

It is the end of a tumultuous, tempest, torrid yet tantalizing love affair.

Long after the final whistle had gone in the 2012 Copa Libertadores final, long after Corinthians had celebrated their first Copa Libertadores win in their 100 year history, the Press were still there. They were waiting. They were however not waiting for the winners of the South American version of the Champions League. They were waiting for Juan Roman Riquelme.

When Riquelme eventually stepped out, his eyes were teary. His mood was sombre. His lips started moving, and though the words confirmed it, though it was expected, it was unexpected. The love affair between Riquelme and Boca Juniors was no more.

In a way, that love affair was a reflection of both Riquelme himself, and Boca Juniors the club. Boca Juniors are always a club in search for that creative genius. The énganche’, that is to say, the playmaker. But in Argentina, énganche is much more than just a playmaker. He is the symbol of an idea. A social creature. And nowhere else in Argentina is this more important than at Boca Juniors. Diego Maradona had defined it for them. He used to be that énganche. Now, it was Riquelme. And Riquelme, just like Maradona, was a genius who bordered on both ends of the extremes.

Trying to describe Riquelme is in itself, difficult. He was magnificent, yet frustrating. He was slow, yet fast. He looked lazy, yet he did all the hard work. You could tell nothing from looking into his eyes. His face continuously seemed to have a frown on it. Yet deep inside, he was probably happy. Happy because of the happiness he brought to so many. To sum it up, he was an enigma.

What was certain however, what was absolute, was that he was always the artist on the pitch. His almost always lazy demeanour was almost always a decoy. Once Riquelme had the ball at his feet, magic was expected. His passes were sublime. What of the pass to release Javier Saviola at the 2006 World Cup, or Lionel Messi at the 2007 Copa America, or Angel Di Maria at the 2008 Olympics. He was a genius artist.

But like all genius artists, he had madness to his genius. Like all Da Vincis and Michelangelos, things had to be done his way. And when things weren’t done his way, everything came to a standstill. In that way, he was hugely a divisive figure.

To the fans, he was an idol. The same could not be said by those who managed him and played alongside him.  At Villareal, he had managed to take them to the Champions League semi final. He was the star player.  But then, he got into a disagreement with the manager, Manuel Pellegrini. His stay at the Valencia based club would be no more.  Last year, Martin Palermo retired from football. But he later said that the decision to do so was not because he was 37 years old. It was because he could not stand being in the same team with Riquelme anymore. He did not want that animosity to destroy his beloved Boca Juniors. And earlier this year, he disagreed with his Boca manager, Julio Cesar Falcioni over the teams tactics. Falcioni threatened to quit, but was persuaded otherwise.

But still, the fans adored him. They were behind him all the way. To them, he was never wrong.  Rarely did he let them down. To an extent, he was as big at Boca as Maradona had been.

He was just like Julius Cesar. Adored by his subjects, but loathed by his colleagues. He was good for them. He was also wrong for them. He could argue with Maradona, but still remain the darling of the Boca fans.

And in an era of registas, an era that called for all round midfielders such as Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo, the énganche that was Riquelme flourished.  He was still influential for Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, the 2007 Copa America and the 2008 Olympics. He was still influential at the 2008 Copa Libertadores for Boca. He should not have been, but he was. He should have been influential at the 2010 World Cup. But a disagreement with Maradona meant that he wasn’t even there in South Africa.

That was the other side to Riquelme. Though he was the reason for success, he also precipitated failure. When Villareal needed him to step up and place the penalty passed Jens Lehmann to send them into the Champions League final, he didn’t. When Argentina required him to step up against Brazil in the final of the Copa America in 2007, he was invisible. He may have carried the team at times, but he also let them down at others.

But they always forgave him. They allowed him to be himself. It was a price they were willing to suffer for his genius. The fact that he could disagree with Maradona, and still remain a darling of the fans in Argentina, sums it up. The fact that Rolando Schiavi, a Boca defender would try to convince him to change his mind, even when he knew that this was probably not the feeling of the rest in the dressing room, proves it.

His time at La Bombonera is now over. This probably means that his time as a footballer is also over. La Bombonera, the name for Boca’s stadium translates to ‘chocolate box’.  How ironical, for Juan Roman Riquelme was just like a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get from him.

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