Juan Román Riquelme is one of the greatest players in the club’s history. An excellent playmaker and a legendary figure during some of the most successful years of the club’s career, Riquelme’s story is a rollercoaster, with some of his highest highs taking place right here at Villarreal.
After growing up as the eldest son of a local gang member in a poor family, Riquelme’s journey to the top flight of multiple leagues is a true rags-to-riches story. Being born in Buenos Aires in 1978 and living there most of his life, it was only natural that he would be picked up by the Argentine youth team at Argentinos Juniors in 1992. At that club, Riquelme started playing as a central midfielder, the position that he would play for the majority of his career. In 1995, he was picked up by Boca Juniors, a club that became home for the young Argentine and the place where he would establish himself as a brilliant footballer.
From the first moment that Riquelme entered the First Division with Boca Juniors in 1996, fans began to see his potential for greatness. Not only was his first ever game in that league a win, but he also quickly gained a reputation for being the next Diego Maradona because of his position as the ‘enganche’ the Argentine term for the attacking midfielder. Unlike Maradona, who was often praised for his lightning-fast playing style, Riquelme was known for his ability to slow down the game to his pace and take advantage of any opportunity to score a goal. He was a true playmaker with a light but consistent touch on the ball and a good sense of how to create space for his teammates to score. According to Spanish coach Luis Aragonés, “He is one of the few players that always put the ball where it should go.” These skills led to him earning three First Division wins Boca Juniors as well as two back-to-back championship titles at the Copa Libertadores. After such a fantastic display in South America, no one can wonder why Riquelme was picked up by FC Barcelona in 2002.
Of course, like a lot of things in Riquelme’s story, the situation was a lot more complicated and interesting than a simple transfer. Shortly before the move, Riquelme’s brother was kidnapped, and the criminals forced Riquelme to pay a ransom for his safe return. Wanting to get far away from that situation, after his brother was freed, Riquelme took Barca’s offer of €10 million and left for Spain. The move was also the result of contract disputes at Boca Juniors and some political signings at Barcelona. The Catalan coach Louis van Gaal said that the move was not his choice but rather the decision of the higher-ups at the club. Because of his indifference towards the star athlete, Gaal almost never played Riquelme, and when he did, he would play him as a winger, denying him the ability to shine in the role he excelled at.
Villarreal CF became Riquelme’s saving grace during that period. After a season of feeling underappreciated and underutilised, Riquelme was loaned to the Yellow Submarine, where he became a star player and a regular starter. Along with the excellent coaching of Manuel Pellegrini and some historic figures like Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla, and Diego Forlán, with whom Riquelme formed a goal-scoring super team, assisting Forlán in winning the Golden Boot that season, Riquelme helped Villarreal reach unprecedented success including third place in LaLiga in the 2004/05 season, a feat that led to their legendary run at the UEFA Champion’s League the next year, where we made it all the way to the semi-finals. That run ended when Riquelme missed a crucial penalty in the last minute of the game. It was a bitter defeat, and according to sports journalist Sid Lowe, “He… never recovered.”
Riquelme to this day, is still considered a great football player. In his international career, he led the Argentine National Team to the Quarter-finals in the 2006 FIFA World Cup and helped win the Gold for Argentina in the 2008 Olympics. Under Boca Juniors, he continued to win First Place in the Argentine First Division and won several South American cups like Recopa Sudamericana and another Copa Libertadores. After his retirement in 2015, sports journalist David Hughes described him as “a classic №10… with mesmerising close control, flamboyant dribbling, and exquisite vision,” even if “his career will always feel like a tragic missed opportunity.” His fellow players seemed to have fond memories of him. The other half of Villarreal’s unstoppable dynamic duo Diego Forlán saying, “I had a great relationship with Riquelme, and I would always want him in my team.”
He was a great player that achieved success from a young age despite his difficult upbringing. He’s a natural talent, a mercurial mastermind, a problematic prodigy. He was a part of the Yellow Submarine, and we will always be grateful for the impact he had on our history.