In the wake of the Argentine’s retirement, Jack Beresford looks back on his troubled spell at Barcelona under the current Manchester United manager.
At around 11:45am on Monday January 26th, a message appeared on the official Barcelona website.
A brief enough announcement weighing in at just over 250 words, the statement revealed former Barca player Juan Roman Riquelme had decided to hang up his boots.
In itself the statement was unremarkable – Riquelme is 36 – but there was still something a little uncouth about the content, which sought to paint a specific picture of the player’s time with the club.
“Riquelme found it difficult to adapt to the rigid structures demanded by coaches van Gaal, first, and later Radomir Antic,” the statement read.
“He never quite managed to find his place in a team that performed irregularly in the league and crashed out of Europe in the quarter finals.”
A two-time Argentine Footballer of the Year who won six major titles during his first seven years at Boca Juniors, Barcelona were expecting big things from Riquelme after paying €11 million in November 2002.
But the South American star found his route to success with the club blocked by a somewhat surprising figure – his own manager Louis Van Gaal.
An Uneasy Setting
Brought back to the club for a second, ultimately disastrous, spell in the summer of 2002 the former Ajax manager was determined to do things his way.
The die had already been cast over the previous summer, when he allowed Rivaldo to leave for nothing, despite there being a year remaining on his contract.
A star for Barca throughout his time in Spain – even in his worst season he averaged a goal every two games – the Brazilian departed because of a seeming failure to adhere to the tactical principles of teamwork put in place by van Gaal.
Recalling the manager’s first spell at the club then-Barca teammate Boudewijn Zenden told BBC Sport:
“Rivaldo thought he was better off playing behind the strikers, so when he won the Golden Ball [in 1999] he just said to van Gaal: ‘I don’t want to play on the left anymore. I want to play behind the strikers.’ van Gaal said: ‘Right. that’s your decision’ and he sat on the bench – because only the manager decided where he would play.'”
It was Rivaldo who had the last laugh on that occasion, with the Catalans struggling in his absence. Van Gaal was ultimately forced to recall him but to no avail – he was sacked at the end of the season.
Two years later though, when the Dutchman was offered the chance to return it was clear the club would not be big enough for the both of them and Rivaldo departed to AC Milan.
“He lacked commitment to the club, he was only interested in making more money and playing less,” Van Gaal told Sky Sports afterwards.
“He plays for Brazil like we needed him to at Barcelona, and he has proved this in the World Cup finals, showing he reserved himself for Japan.”
A Difficult Start
Into the club came Riquelme, a playmaker by trade and someone van Gaal seemed to take an immediate dislike to, dubbing him a ‘political signing’ by those at Barca keen to fill the void left by Rivaldo’s departure.
Van Gaal, who had favoured the power of the collective over the individual, was determined not to see his second chance at the club undone by another maverick talent and the same disparity between coach and player began to play out.
“You’re the best player when you have the ball, but when you don´t we play with one less,” he told the young Argentine upon his arrival, according to the International Business Times.
At the time, Riquelme took the criticism on the chin, even praising the Dutch coach for his honesty.
“I will never say anything bad about him because I think that people who are true to what they think deserve to be respected,” he told Sky Sports a year later.
“He is convinced his way of making a team play is correct and I am okay with that.”
But that viewpoint would soon change drastically.
A Vote of No Confidence
Almost immediately van Gaal took a strange approach to Riquelme, using the new signing sparsely and out of position to middling effect.
The decision seemed like a twofold strategy with the Dutchman deploying the Argentine on the wing in the same way he had with Rivaldo, determined to force the playmaker into submission and a role in the team that benefited van Gaal’s vision of Barca rather than Riquelme’s attributes.
It was also about sending a message to the Barcelona board, making it clear that they had signed the wrong player over the summer and that he simply did not fit in.
Yet for all the easy comparisons that may have been made between Rivaldo and Riquelme, the reality was that the two players were markedly different, with the Argentine’s game centered around precise passing and deadly through balls rather than the more selfish style of his South American predecessor.
Furthermore, despite this shabby treatment, Riquelme still enjoyed some small triumphs, scoring six goals for the Catalans including a fine strike against Club Brugge in a Champions League group stage victory that should have sparked an extended run in the team.
And all this came against a backdrop of major turmoil for the South American, who had been forced to pay kidnappers a ransom for his brother Cristian just prior to his move to Spain – circumstances that should have been taken into consideration by Barcelona.
In a club where the manager neither believed in him nor wanted him there, Riquelme seemed destined for a quick exit, particularly after the arrival of van Gaal’s replacement Radomir Antic did little to change his standing in the team.
But just when it seemed all was lost, someone emerged with plans for the Argentine – Manuel Pellegrini, then at Villarreal.
Second Season Syndrome
The Chilean saw what van Gaal had failed to see – helped perhaps by spells managing in Argentina with San Lorenzo and River Plate – that Riquelme needed to be the centre of attention.
It was something that the current Colombia manager Jose Pekerman, who coached the playmaker at the 1997 World Youth Cup and later the 2006 senior finals in Germany, understood, building his teams around the football brain of the Boca man.
La Albiceleste may have failed to reach the World Cup final but they were among the teams of the tournament, with Riquelme front and centre during a 6-0 win over Serbia that featured arguably the greatest international team goal of all time.
Riquelme began to return to top form with the Yellow Submarine, helping the club become a regular fixture in the Champions League, even reaching the semi-finals in 2006.
During his stay at the club, the Argentine appeared to rethink his stance concerning Van Gaal.
“The truth is that he was not very nice and after hearing him I thought about going back to Argentina as soon as possible,” he explained in one interview with SBS.
“I went there (to Barcelona) with the intention of staying five years but I stayed only one…”
His time at Villarreal ended acrimoniously but it remains a little heralded truth that, in the right hands, he could have done great things at Barcelona.
Riquelme’s arrival at the club was not simply a case of bad management – it was bad timing.
A couple of years on and Barcelona were desperate for a South American star capable of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and creating magic out of nothing.
Ronaldinho may not have been the same kind of player as Riquelme but there was one key difference about his time at the club – he had the manager’s backing.
It’s been the same with Lionel Messi, the South American superstar currently calling the shots at Camp Nou.
Had Riquelme been given the opportunity to play in his preferred no.10 role behind the likes of Patrick Kluivert then we could have seen a very different Barcelona in the years that followed.
Journalist Tim Vickery summed up it up best writing for BBC Sport: “Riquelme is a team player who helps bring out the best in those around him. For this reason it is vital that he is placed in the right context.”
Unfortunately for Barcelona, with memories of Rivaldo still fresh in the mind and plans to instill a different kind of ethos at the club, van Gaal opted against utilising one of his main assets in a decision fans of the Catalan club may one day look back on with regret.