Juan Riquelme: An Artista who lived in his own world
The gifted inhabit a rather curious world. To have been blessed by His touch is a substantial burden to carry, with the weight of expectation in a constant battle with the burning need for self-expression. There are those who nurture that fire and polish it so fiercely that the world has no choice but to just stand and admire. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will attest to that.
Then there are those who wilt in the face of their own exorbitant talent. Here, we find the names reeling off our tongue with almost absurd ease – Quaresma, Van Der Meyde, Adriano and the like. Mario Balotelli shies away, perhaps hoping that for once, he would not make this discussion. He fails miserably, if only because the gifted are continually searching for something that they themselves do not truly understand. And the longer they search, the longer the Schadenfreude at their expense.
And then there is Juan Roman Riquelme.
Riquelme was an artist among modern professional footballers
The Argentine has certainly nurtured the magic that resides in his boots, practised and perfected it with the kind of light, airy brushstrokes that only true genius permits. But he remains fiercely protective of his gifts, refusing, point-blank, to reside in a world that changes with the times.
The game has been gravitating gradually toward athletes, and not pure footballers, in recent times. But the truly great will always find their way in a changing world. Ronaldo embraced it wholeheartedly, transforming his body into a weapon that can do much more than just hold its own amid all the rough and tumble.
Messi’s easy grace and oneness with the sphere that he caresses has remained his primary weapon, as Guardiola’s inspired reign sought to highlight the little man’s otherworldly gifts while hiding his flaws. Long gone are the days when a teenaged Messi would spend more time recuperating on the sidelines, pining for a return to the turf.
But his countryman has remained a throwback to a different time, a lone voice in an age that prizes effectiveness over beauty; fire over finesse. And somewhere along the line the youngster who marvelled at his own gifts became a hardened, self-involved narcissist.
It may be petulant even to think of this as a tribute, but if Riquelme himself were to read this, the only reaction from the maestro would be a stiff nod of approval, as if he were silently basking in the glory of the grudging respect his craft demands.
Popular psychology suggests that you take the thing that your detractors use against you, and use it as a shield. That way, no one can hurt you. Riquelme has perfected this to an extent where he has built sandcastles in the sky, and a series of managers have felt the brunt of his ire when he has steadfastly refused to bring himself back down to earth. What does it say about you when you have a falling out with Manuel Pellegrini, who is probably the most reasonable man in the northern hemisphere?
Louis van Gaal, in his time at Barcelona, was publicly dismissive of the Argentine, asserting that his signing was more “political” than anything else. Carlos Bianchi gave the world the blueprint on how to deal with Riquelme – build your team around his talents, around this wonderfully gifted individualista, and he will have the masses crooning for more.
Jose Pekerman was listening, and there was a period leading up to - and including - that World Cup in 2006 when the world saw what Riquelme was capable of. I still remember waking up to the headline “6-0; Argentina – Not Federer” in the wake of Argentina’s annihilation of Serbia. Sadly, much like the Swiss master himself, those days of all-conquering artistry have become but a memory.
Federer, that role model of mind-boggling wizardry and gentlemanly conduct, was always effusive in the glow of his unparalleled accomplishments. Riquelme has always been unabashedly conscious of his own superiority, even if that has never really translated into the trophies that his ego demands.
Even so, this moment of scintillating play from that encounter against the Serbians will live long in the memory, and serves as a true testament to the beauty that his game inspired. 24 passes criss-crossed the pitch as Riquelme dictated the almost metronomic passing that could not help but find a way into the Serbian goal. Watching it again, spell-bound, after all these years, it is hard not to sympathize with the Argentine and his craft.
"If you have to travel from point A to point B, everyone would take the six-lane highway and get there as quickly as possible. Everyone except Riquelme. He would choose the winding mountain road that takes six hours but that fills your eyes with scenes of beautiful landscapes." – Jorge Valdano
He holds a special place in the hearts of Boca fans – they have always loved a dash of “chutzpah” in their heroes in those parts. A word that has claimed quite a spot thousands of miles away, in this country of a billion, with Vishal Bharadwaj’s excellent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And that “chutzpah” may be just about as close as we get to defining a character like Riquelme. Enmeshed in his own desires and playing the lead role in his own play, the man – much like Shakespeare’s unwitting protagonist – seems lost in a world of his own.
Except that Riquelme is there by choice. His belief in his own methods and in the game that he so proudly defends may appear to be foolhardy in the face of our rapidly evolving game. But through the eyes of a man who saw the turf as a canvas, to revel in its countless permutations and combinations - that takes a soul lost in the beauty of what this game of ours can offer.
And for that, and so much more, Artista, we salute you. Your kind belongs on a canvas, etched into permanence for fear of losing out on something that is at once as beautiful, as it is perishable.