After losing the Copa Libertadores final to Corinthians, Juan Roman Riquelme retired. Kind of.
"The commitment I have is very great. I cannot play at only half-capacity," he said. "I've been playing for 16 years but I have nothing left to give the club. Now I just want to go home, hug my kids and eat asado with my friends."
The 34-year-old claimed that he was "empty" and would leave Boca Juniors, where he started his career. Boca suspended his contract last week, making him a free agent. On Friday, Riquelme called a press conference to clarify his future. Kind of.
"I feel I play better than before," he said. "So if you have a team, just let me know and we'll kick a ball about."
Juan Roman Riquelme: coming to a rec league near you.
It's unclear if the Argentine has retired. As he said many times to the question during his press conference, he doesn't know. He did wave aside suggestions that he's leaving Boca because of a strained relationship with coach Julio Falcioni. Kind of.
"I didn't need a manager anymore," he said.
A manager might not always get along smoothly with a player who thinks that. And Riquelme's managers frequently had patchy relationships with him.
In 11 seasons total with Boca Juniors, he won five league titles and three Libertadores. But at Barcelona Louis van Gaal toyed with using him on the wings and then shunted him off on loan at Villarreal. There, with the team built around him, he led the tiny club (which bought him outright) into the Champions League and then to the semifinals of the Champions League.
But after missing the 89th-minute penalty that would have led Villarreal past Arsenal in 2006, Riquelme fell out with Manuel Pellegrini for refusing to train. The Yellow Submarine torpedoed Riquelme back to Boca on loan and then on a full-time transfer.
He's been in and out of the Argentine national team. Riquelme requires complete tactical devotion. He's an enganche – literally the "hook" – a playmaker of such minimal off-the-ball movement that it takes three other holding midfielders to cover for him. So that's what Jose Pekerman did when building his side for the 2006 World Cup. Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso and Maxi Rodriguez (in a deeper shuttling role) did the running; Riquelme did the playmaking.
Riquelme meticulously led the team to the quarterfinals, and his corner put Argentina one up against Germany. Then, with 20 minutes remaining, Pekerman hooked Riquelme off the field to defend the lead. Germany scored in the 80th minute and won on penalties.
Riquelme hasn't played in a World Cup since, though he was an overage member of the squad that won gold in the 2008 Olympics.
If coaches bristle at his unwillingness to track or harry or even pretend to do more than jog, fans adore him. Ray Hudson called him a "big, beautiful zombie." All play bottlenecks through his languid feet. South Americans talk of "the pause" -- that moment when the visionary picks his head up before the pass. Riquelme turned it into a grinding halt, lulling the other team into a stupor before clicking into passing gear. His elegance and vision was as gorgeous as the curves on namesake Larissa.
Former Argentina forward Jorge Valdano said, "He is a player of the time when life was slow and we took the chairs out on the streets to play with the neighbors."
Now, always slightly out of time with the present game, Riquelme's time seems up. He might take one last lucrative contract, jog around some bald field a few times, but it makes sense that he's out there playing in a back yard with children. That's kind of what he's been doing all along.
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