Speaking after his side’s 3-2 FA Cup win over Brighton last weekend, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger proclaimed that ‘if you love football, you love Tomas Rosicky.’ Whilst the virtuoso performance of ‘the little Mozart’ made this statement easy to agree with, the very same weekend saw the retirement of one man who fit this conditional clause much more aptly, the Argentinian Juan Roman Riquelme.
Almost every ‘football hipster’ blogger has some reference to Riquelme in their Twitter profiles or on their blogs and videos of his goals and skills have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. It is perhaps ironic that his spirit and legend are kept alive so steadfastly on such modern platforms given that he feels like the last of his type; an antiquated luxury that has no place in the success driven culture of globalised football. It is difficult, arguably even impossible, to think of a current player so devout in his pursuit of beauty, so disinterested by accolades.
That is not to say that this is a player who has not won things. Five Argentinian titles and three Copa Libertadores, as well as an Olympic title and an U-20 World Cup with Argentina, would prove the opposite of that. But in Europe, the part of the footballing landscape on which the eyes of the world are inevitably set, he only lifted two Intertoto cups. Newcastle United also won that in 2006, so it barely counts. Indeed, for many English fans, the lasting memory of Riquelme is his last-minute penalty miss against Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League semi-final that saw the Gunners progress to the final.
But success is not the way to judge a player so gloriously, irrepressibly talented. Riquleme played the game like he was continually playing in the park with his friends, with every decision seemingly made so that he could ask them ‘did you see that?’ He had better accuracy in his heels than most have in their insteps and an ability to see countless different options, and at all points he chose the most unexpected. Indeed, in his own words, ‘Why simply accomplish when one can create something beautiful?’
This is not a style that everyone appreciated. He has fallen out with coaches, teammates and innumerable journalists throughout his eighteen year career. He was frozen out at Barcelona, often overlooked by his national side, and will have never garnered the money or worldwide exposure he deserved. Indeed, in the eyes of many, he is a disappointment, one of football’s great ‘what-ifs.’
His time at Barcelona is particularly pertinent at this point, both in regards to the club and the man in charge at that time. The Catalan giants are in a season that has definitively seen them move away from the aesthetically extraordinary tiki-taka style that made them the world’s most feared side. They have a sponsor on their shirts, Luis Suarez up front and have been placed under a transfer embargo due to their shady harvesting of young talent. Their image has rarely been at a lower ebb, but they are still successful, and are still winning games.
Similarly, the man who cast Riquelme aside at la Blaugrana was Louis Van Gaal, another man in the spotlight at the moment. That he and the Argentine fell out is unsurprising given Van Gaal’s emphasis on shape, systems and productivity. Indeed, speaking over the summer about his United squad, the Dutchman bemoaned his players playing with intuition, believing that this individuality and unpredictability undermined the collective effort.
This argument of beauty against substance is one central to football, indeed central to sport. Is sport the ultimate expression of competition, an arena where one must win at all costs? Does the lack of desire to do so make one fundamentally a lesser sportsman? Do fans want to win or be entertained?
Ultimately, Ryan Bertrand will always be able to say he is a Champions League winner and Riquelme won’t. Whether this will give the Argentinian sleepless nights is something only he can say, but it is surely unlikely. What is certain, however, is that football and sport are richer for men like Riquelme. They need to be celebrated, cultivated and adored, not forced to track runners or play the simple pass. That should be left for the Bertrands of this world.