I woke up Monday, the first weekday after the suspension of all major sports, to a picture of Juan Roman Riquelme on Instagram taken by famed Japanese photographer Masahide Tomikoshi during the 2004 Kirin Challenge Cup, a match against Japan that Argentina lost, 2-1.
Scroll Tomikoshi’s page and you can see many unpublished and intimate photographs of some of soccer’s greatest players. A natural nostalgia comes through his images, in part because the stories of those legends are so deeply embedded in the culture of football. I know so much about the characters pictured — the way they played and the impact they had — without ever having seen them in action.
I was lucky enough to see Riquelme before he retired. His imagination and skill on the ball was so otherworldly that the more you try to explain what made him so special the further away you seem to get from the truth. He could pass, dribble, and shoot very well, though saying that really says nothing. But when I hear the name Riquelme, I receive an immediate pleasant and dreamy feeling of how wonderful he was on the field. It’s not that language is inadequate, but anything less than finding the perfect words would be committing an injustice.
After seeing the picture of Riquelme, I went to YouTube to look up his matches and highlights from that year. There’s a wonderful video of his performance for Villareal in a 3-0 win against Barcelona in the 2004-2005 season, when he was on loan. He won man of the match without scoring, dominating an opposing team that had the likes of in-prime Ronaldinho, Deco, Xavi, Samuel Eto’o, and a young Andres Iniesta.
Startlingly, I found my mental image of Riquelme didn’t fit the man running around on the screen. Because I watched him so late in his career, my image of Riquelme has always been one of an older, slower midfielder who outwitted his opponents with his close dribbling skills and long-range passing. In 2005, he still had those on-ball abilities, but he was also dynamic. He could pass and dribble circles around defenders, but he also ran by them with ease.
In my mind, I wanted to compare Riquelme to a modern player. I wanted to bring him into the present and imagine how he would have fared in this world where the game has sped up and become more physically demanding. He was a midfielder who could control the game, shoot, and retain possession under pressure, what is now defined as a “press-resistant midfielder.” He is an ancestor to players like Santi Cazorla. I laughed thinking of him coming up as Mateo Kovačić if Kovačić had a deeper sense of beauty.
Comparison is the basis of so many sports discussions, a way to try to grasp the past through the present. But it is also often a cruel exercise that elevates the present by dismissing the past. Players have no doubt gotten better over time. Training and tactics have evolved, and there are more talented players in the world today. It’s easy to assume players from the past were relatively not very good, and the best of them just happened to play at a time when others were worse.
I don’t want to argue whether that way of thinking is right or wrong; rather, I would like to turn away from it. Players have no say in when they’re born, and can only do what they can in the time they’re given. I cannot blame or dismiss Riquelme for the time in which he played, but I can admire what he achieved in the small slice of history he occupied, and the joy he gave those who had the privilege to exist alongside him.
So I won’t bring him into the present. I want the Riquelme of 2005 to remain in 2005. What I want to do, instead, is to talk about the one particular moment in the match that I kept rewatching because it made me so happy.
Fifteen minutes and 17 seconds into the game, Riquelme lost the ball after a throw-in. The ball went out to Carles Puyol, the Barcelona defender. Riquelme closed him down. Puyol tried to dribble away, but Riquelme won the ball back with his long left foot.
In the ensuing seconds, he showed off how nearly impossible it was to get the ball off him. The first defender came from above, and as a result of that pressure, Riquelme was forced to dribble to the touchline, face his goal, and use his body to shield the ball. Then a second defender lunged in from underneath. To avoid losing the ball, Riquelme pulled it back in the direction of the defender’s lunging foot, so that the defender touched it but not hard enough to win it. As a third defender came from his left, filling in a semicircle around him, he dribbled out of the pressure and towards his goal while stumbling over the ball.
Yet he didn’t fall. The instant he found some space, he regained his balance, turned to his left and passed to a teammate. As soon as he gave up the ball, he changed his path and ran towards the Barcelona goal, bisecting the two defenders who were still chasing him. The teammate returned the pass ahead of him, and in a matter of moments, he went from being trapped on the touchline to beating them all and releasing a through ball for Diego Forlan.
Riquelme was full of moments like that. So many times in watching him, it felt like he was trying to see if he could retain the ball in increasingly tense situations. Whether he was facing one, two, three or four defenders, he would come out with the ball and a plan forward. And he was always looking forward.
Riquelme was one of those players who deserves the designation of genius, as nebulous as that title is. What does it mean? For Riquelme, it was phenomenal on-ball skills and intelligence combined with indescribable grace and beauty. It’s a waste of time to compare Riquelme to anyone. We can only grasp a little of his magic through words. To really love him, you have to watch.