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Remembering a Legend: Juan Román Riquelme

There won’t be many (any?) more like Argentine midfielder Juan Román Riquelme. A tribute from one of his biggest fans – he’s the reason this writer began following the Yellow Submarine.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It’s hard to see your favorite player retire. Villarreal fans have seen Marcos Senna and Rubén Cani leave the club in recent times.   And Diego Forlán has quit the ranks of top-flight football.   Now it’s the turn of the enigmatic genius Juan Román Riquelme.

Román’s retirement brings to mind one of my favorite literary quotes – from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.   When the protagonist learns that his best friend James Steerforth has done wrong (run away with a young girl), David remembers Steerforth’s last words to him: "Think of me at my best."  And so, in spite of the circumstances surrounding Román’s departure from Vila-real, we will think of him here at his brilliant best.

A look back at his career in yellow:

Foreword.  Román came to Barcelona from Boca Juniors in the fall of 2002 after a sparkling career in Argentina, South America, and internationally with the xeneizes. Remember that he had already won the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup (now the FIFA Club World Cup) by taking out Real Madrid in a brilliant performance – look at this pass to Martín Palermo for the decisive tally. So he was a known commodity upon his big-money move to Barcelona, despite no goals and only a handful of caps with the albiceleste (primarily at the 1999 Copa América). But Barcelona boss Louis van Gaal had little interest in Román, and after just four goals in twenty league and Champions League starts, the Argentine was looking for a new home.

2003-04: settling in. Enter the Yellow Submarine, who signed him on loan for the following season. After finishing 15th in La Liga the season prior, Villarreal improved to 8th place and made a memorable run to the UEFA Cup (now the UEFA Europa League) semifinals, losing to a solitary Valencia goal (La Liga champions that year) over 180 minutes. Also worth noting: 2003-04 saw Villarreal sign Pepe Reina, Juliano Belletti, Marcos Senna, and Josico, among others. Laying the foundation.

2004-05: turning it up a notch. Vila-real put itself on the European map the next season, with Román (again on loan from Barcelona) and Forlán (purchased from Manchester United) as the key figures. The big two ran away from the rest of the division, but the Yellow Submarine came in third on 65 points with an impressive 69 goals scored. You likely know that Forlán shared the European Golden Boot with 25 league tallies, but Román also banged in 16 (half from the spot). And he was indispensable to Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini in his debut European campaign – confidence was always vital to Román.
Perhaps more importantly for Román’s future, he finally established himself in the Argentina squad and picked up twelve caps, including in a defeat to Brazil at the 2005 Confederations Cup final. The best was yet to come.

2005-06: at his peak. Román was at his most prolific statistically in 2004-05, but the next season was the best qualitatively of his career. After being sold to Villarreal to pave the way for Ronaldinho’s arrival at Barcelona, Román knocked in twelve goals in just 25 La Liga appearances and another pair in the Champions League, along with the most memorable assist in Villarreal history. Naysayers and Valencia fans will of course remember his timid penalty straight at Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann to pervert extra time (and the course of history) in the Champions League semifinal second leg. But don’t forget the reaction of Villarreal fans after the defeat – a banner reading "Ánimo Román!"

And after an up-and-down career with the albiceleste, Román was first-choice in manager José Antonio Pékerman’s system for Germany 2006. Argentina blew through its qualifying group, taking seven points from Cote d’Ivoire, Serbia and Montenegro, and the Netherlands. The 6-0 demolition of Serbia and Montenegro featured one of the prettiest goals ever. That was Román’s team.

The Argentines escaped a feisty round of 16 encounter with Mexico thanks to an extra-time wonder goal from Maxi Rodríguez. Up next: hosts Germany. Román’s third assist of the tournament put Argentina in front, and the South Americans looked to be nursing that advantage to the semifinals. But Argentina’s #10 was removed in a defensive change in 72’ – just when the albiceleste needed to hold onto and take the air out of the ball. Miroslav Klose leveled the score ten minutes from time, the match went to penalties, and naturally Román’s replacement Esteban Cambiasso missed the decisive penalty. Peaks and valleys.

2006-07: the climax.  Román then retired from international football, citing the strain on his mother’s health. And to start the next club campaign, Villarreal crashed out of European competition in the infamous Maribor debacle. By then the club had grown tired of some of his off-field demands, and Román was making the bed for a return home to Argentina. After thirteen league starts and just one goal (from the spot), Román left Europe to return to his favorite club, never to don the yellow kit again.
Afterword. Román went on loan to Boca for the first half of 2007. Then came a protracted struggle for his rights. Atlético Madrid came close to swooping for Román, but after a year of negotiations, he finally went back to Boca for good in the biggest incoming transfer in Argentine league history. And he left Villarreal in the Champions League and coming off a runner-up finish in La Liga. Perhaps it ended the right way.

What’s your favorite Román moment? How do you evaluate his career in yellow? Was he the best player in Villarreal history?

From this writer: thank you, Román.