by Chris Mann
Being brought up first in the East Midlands watching Mansfield Town and then on the South coast as a Southampton fan, it’s fair to say that I’ve never been consistently exposed to true footballing genius. Sure, Le Tissier was sublime and even Theo Walcott had his moments, but throughout my growing up I yearned for something more exotic, something that pushed the boundaries of what I thought it was possible to do on a football pitch.
There wasn’t one particular moment when Juan Román Riquelme burned himself so forcefully into my consciousness; it was much more of an incremental process. I have lots of fleeting but powerful memories of him in his years at Villarreal that have combined to form something approaching a full portrait of the player in my mind, a portrait that paints him as one of the finest midfield playmakers there has ever been. A graceful pivot, an incisive pass, a majestic free-kick arcing gracefully into the net of a faceless Spanish goalkeeper, all are treasured memories of the player who was my introduction to football cultures outside of Britain.
Despite all of his exceptional attributes, perhaps the most appealing feature of Riquelme is his patent lack of athleticism. In an era dominated by sports science and heavy conditioning, the Boca legend’s lack of speed and wonderfully stubborn habit of slowing the game down to his pace is a heart-warming sight. Even playing the game at what sometimes resembles walking pace, Riquelme still has more than enough skill to make it appear as if he’s in a completely different space/time continuum to the players around him.
His demeanour as a misunderstood, angst-ridden artist is also thoroughly spellbinding. Seeing Riquelme move around the pitch you feel as if he almost shouldn’t be there, as if he belongs in the era of Rivelino and Tostão, of Riva and Houseman. The more you watch him, the more you want to protect him, to stop his genius being tainted by association with some of the “lesser” players with whom he shares the field. You don’t feel as if Riquelme should have to undergo the trauma of being exposed to the gauche, high-tempo world of modern football, you almost feel sorry for him.
As complex a character “Roman” is, never has one player before or since I saw him play for the first time engendered in me such a feeling of awe. Indeed, Villarreal’s Champions League semi-final against Arsenal in 2006 is a perfect example of the enrapturing paradox that is Riquelme. Over the two legs the Argentinian was the best player on display, taking Arsenal on – at least in my mind’s eye – almost single-handedly. It was, as all his best moments have been, a bewitching and yet ultimately flawed performance.
In the second-leg at El Madrigal, Villarreal won a late penalty which, had Riquelme converted it, would have taken the tie to extra-time. But Lehmann, almost inevitably, guessed correctly, dived to his left and consigned the Yellow Submarine to an agonising last four exit.
Riquelme is a phenomenal player, but he is also an underdog, a man seemingly ill-at-ease in his environs and a footballer who has never quite achieved the success his ability warrants. Maybe it’s a reflection of my own character, but “Roman” is my favourite player of all time and I wouldn’t have it any other way.