Juan Román Riquelme is one of those players that fans convinced themselves they'd never see retire. It's been seven years since he was at the top of his game, but he's kept going anyway, and he remained effective even when he couldn't run anymore. Not only did Boca Juniors build a team to accommodate him and mask his deficiencies, but they had no choice. The fans wouldn't tolerate seeing him dropped, and once he left the club, they had no discernible creative outlet.
Watching great strikers or wingers limp around the pitch is often sad, and very few pull off an enjoyable late-career run like Thierry Henry did in the United States. But Riquelme, like many No. 10s before him, was somehow even more endearing as he became entirely one-dimensional. Here was a player whose only jobs -- and it's not like he was capable of any others -- were to take set pieces and hit creative passes. He was so good at those things that it didn't matter that he could hardly walk.
The 36-year-old version of Riquelme wasn't terribly different from the 18-year-old version, and to many, that's what makes him special. To others, it makes him the most overrated player of a generation.
Now he's gone. So what was Riquelme, really?
Riquelme was such an entertainer that his retirement was legitimately devastating. This site joked that God should cancel soccer. At The Guardian, Marcela Mora y Araujo points out a couple of ridiculous, but completely believable bits of hyperbole from one pundit who suggested that Riquelme was the second inventor of football and another who thinks Boca should retire the No. 10 shirt.
If he's not the all-time highlights king, he's at least on the Mount Rushmore.
His skillful moves always looked so effortless, as if he were born with a ball at his feet. Even in a golden age of set-piece takers like David Beckham, Juninho and Roberto Carlos, Riquelme stood out for his skill in that area of the game as well. He was everything that fans want from the player wearing the No. 10 shirt, on their team or otherwise.
There aren't many other players who have rivaled Riquelme in sheer joy brought to people who watched them play, and certainly no one else who rivals his longevity in doing so. He made his Boca debut in 1996, was a superstar for the club by 1998 and spent 18 seasons playing the game at a high level.
Riquelme was a massive pain in the ass who refused to play the game any way but his way. If he were a 24-year-old heading to Europe for the first time in today's game where versatility is valued over all, he'd probably struggle to adapt. A team would have to build around him and most would be pretty unwilling to do so.
When he made his big move to Barcelona, his team was not built around him in any way, and he didn't make a big impact. Then-manager Louis van Gaal openly stated that Riquelme was not his signing, and he didn't make any effort to play him in a suitable position. The highly touted young playmaker from Boca Juniors was stuck out on the wing, branded a failure and shipped off to a smaller team in Spain.
He was once considered undroppable at Villarreal before bust-ups with two separate coaches. Current Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini was the one who lost all tolerance for his bad attitude. "The slow-motion genius is half the player he was; these days, he's just slow. It's like he has given up, at 28," wrote Sid Lowe when Riquelme was tossed out of the Yellow Submarine.
Even though he was able to revive his career after leaving Spain, he was out of the national team by age 30, apparently over a dispute with Diego Maradona about where he operated on the pitch. "All I said was I wanted him playing further forward. I wasn't criticising him," said Maradona, then the Argentina boss. Neither has ever clarified their feud. For all the public knows, the reason that Riquelme retired from Argentina is that his manager asked him to play a different way and he refused.
Riquelme was a choker on the biggest stage. In the big moments when it mattered most, he didn't deliver, despite his sparkling performances in the early parts of the tournaments he participated in. This happened most notably in back-to-back international tournaments, the 2006 World Cup and the 2007 Copa America, as well as the 2005-06 UEFA Champions League that preceded them.
The inherent irony in Riquelme's biggest individual failure is that his team was only in a position for him to screw up on the grandest stage because of him. Without Riquelme's brilliance, Villarreal would have never reached a UEFA Champions League semifinal, nor would Arsenal have put in enough defensive effort for his team to be within one goal of the final. But in the 180th minute of that semifinal tie in 2006, with a spot in the final on the line, Riquelme missed from the penalty spot. He hit a poor effort that Jens Lehmann didn't have to make any kind of exceptional effort to save. In that big spot, when his team needed a goal, he failed to hit the ball with any conviction.
In Germany, Riquelme was the leading assist man for the entire tournament. His Argentina side topped arguably the toughest group in the tournament, besting Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro before drawing the Netherlands. Argentina got past Mexico in dramatic fashion, but against the hosts Germany in the quarterfinals, he was well contained by Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings before being substituted early. Argentina, seemingly the most talented side in the tournament, lost on penalties.
And if the Albiceleste were seemingly the top side at that tournament, their claim to that spot at the next summer's Copa America wasn't in question at all. That was a year later, when Lionel Messi was no longer an extremely impressive 19-year-old prospect, but now one of the five best attackers in the world. Riquelme was in top form, and Argentina's level of dominance through the first five games of the Copa was breathtaking. You've probably seen the hilarious video of Ray Hudson's commentary during the tournament and friendlies surrounding it.
That tournament was the one that established Messi as first choice for Argentina, but he was outshone by Riquelme throughout. He led the tournament in assists and finished second in goals, but he was invisible in the final. That horrible, devastating, unfathomable final.
If you didn't follow South American football at the time, it might be counterintuitive to think of a Brazil goal as out of the ordinary, but the fourth-minute opener was truly one of the most shocking goals in the recent history of international football. Ultimately, this game was Riquelme's lasting national team legacy.
Riquelme is the greatest player in the history of Boca Juniors, one of the greatest clubs the world has ever seen -- there are only a tiny handful of clubs whose atmosphere rivals the one at La Bombonera. They've produced some of the Argentinian national team's best players, they have 30 national titles and their six Copa Libertadores titles are second-most all time. And despite all this history, as well as spending his prime years in Europe, Riquelme is Boca's greatest ever.
It's possible that this is all that matters to him, and it's definitely all that matters to a couple million Boca supporters. He helped deliver two Copa Lib titles in his early years, then returned to deliver another. When the club was in a slight decline and in need of a spark, he took a pay cut to return to his former club and was far and away the top player at the 2007 Copa Libertadores. He scored three goals in the two-legged final, cementing his Boca legacy. In that shirt, he was never a choker.
Ultimately, that Riquelme was all of these things is what makes him one of the most interesting players ever. He was an all-time great talent, a spectacular entertainer, a Boca Juniors hero, a national team flop and a jerk who regularly put himself above the team that he was playing for, all in one. Who is anyone to say which element of his career defined him as a player?