Juan Roman Riquelme: Playing out of Love and for the Glory

Jaime HeilbronContributor IIIMay 28, 2013

Juan Román Riquelme celebrating a goal against Corinthians on May 15.
Juan Román Riquelme celebrating a goal against Corinthians on May 15.

Yesterday, an article written by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Daniel Edwards titled “The 10 Biggest Unfulfilled Talents in World Football History” listed current Boca Juniors captain Juan Román Riquelme among them. In all honesty, there is no way he should be included in the article.

At the same time, it is not hard to understand why this could happen, as it is true that Riquelme never won a championship of any kind in Europe. Riquelme, however, did fulfill his talents and potential at Boca Juniors, the club he supports, and he helped it reach unimaginable heights and a place at the top of the world.

Nowadays, European football has a great advantage over South American Football, in that the economy in Europe in general is much stronger than in South America. This translates to football and  allows the wealthier European clubs to poach the top players in South America, promising salaries that their South American counterparts cannot.

At the same time, it is undeniable that some of the best talents in the planet come out of South America, and were the economical situation different, their hometown clubs would be more likely to keep them in their midst. One great example of this is new F.C. Barcelona signing Neymar.

Neymar is currently Brazil’s most promising star. He just turned 21 a few months ago, and in a few short years he has already built himself a reputation as one of the most creative players in the world. He has already won everything that there is to win in South America with Santos F.C., and the fact that he stayed this long is a surprise to many, and a move for which he has been heavily criticized at times.

Riquelme’s case, however, is a unique one. Riquelme first left Boca in 2002 at the age of 24 for Barcelona, in a similar situation to Neymar’s, having already won everything there was to win with Boca and as one of the game’s rising stars. For the most part, Riquelme shined in his European period.

While at Barcelona in the 2002-03 season, he was not considered very often by then manager Louis Van Gaal, and when he was, it was as a wing, which was not his natural position. In 2003, he was loaned to Villareal C.F., a club where he would indeed shine. Riquelme, almost single-handedly, would lead a small, mostly unknown Spanish club all the way to the semifinals of the 2005-06 UEFA Champions League, a feat that is not given as much credit as it should.

However, the most important periods of Riquelme’s career were his stints at Club Atlético Boca Juniors, and the main reason that Román— as he is known by Boca fans—is far from an unfulfilled talent. The South American giant is historically one of the greatest clubs in the world, being tied with A.C. Milan for the lead in international titles, and having accomplished incredible feats in many finals.

His first stint lasted from his debut in 1996, at the age of 18, through 2002. In that period, Riquelme won the hearts of Boca supporters, helping the club to six titles, which included three national championships, two Copa Libertadores and the 2000 Intercontinental Cup against Real Madrid, in which Riquelme played a huge role.

His second and current stint, is the most interesting one, though, as it gives one an inkling as to Riquelme’s motivations. Riquelme returned to Boca in 2007 on a six-month loan to play in the Copa Libertadores. At that moment in time, Román was widely considered one of the best players on the planet. Riquelme was by far the most dominant and important player of that Copa Libertadores, scoring eight goals as a midfielder, including three out of five in the finals, to help Boca hoist its sixth trophy in the competition.

In the advent of his Libertadores participation, much speculation surrounded Riquelme’s future. Eventually, however, he was sold to Boca in November 2007 and would be allowed to return to competition after the January transfer window opened.

His return would mark the beginning of Riquelme’s rise to becoming, arguably, the most important player in Boca Juniors history. Had he tried hard enough, he could have signed a new lucrative contract in Europe with some minor team that would pay him well, but probably not help him achieve the glory he would with Boca and in the process become a living legend in the club he supported.

Since his return to Boca, Riquelme has been an important part of everything they have achieved. That includes two national championships in 2008 and 2011, the 2008 Recopa Sudamericana and the 2011-12 Copa Argentina. His accomplishments in Boca, a giant both at the regional and global level, trump the idea that Juan Román Riquelme is an unfulfilled talent.

The fact that he saved his best performances for South American football should not take away from his legacy in any way. It is World Football, after all, and the sport goes beyond the European leagues.