Riquelme’s reminder: There’ll always be a place for art in soccer

Call me old fashioned, but Juan Román Riquelme is my favorite kind of player. Riquelme was never the fastest, strongest, or even remotely close to the most athletic player on the field. But somehow, the Argentine midfielder made a career out of the remaining scraps, relying exclusively on technique, awareness, and an ability to read the game with such precision that at times he came off as a master puppeteer. The other 21 players on the field frequently looked like extensions of Riquelme, only there to be manipulated by his thoughts and movements. Riquelme created exquisite art.

Last night, Riquelme announced his career as an artist was over. Eight weeks after his final appearances, the Argentine virtuoso announced his retirement. His work is done.

The beautiful thing about great art is you can lose yourself in it. Its completeness prevents you from focusing on the various components that add up to the beauty — you just stare, or listen, or watch, and love and nod approvingly, because you don’t have to explain it. The beauty speaks for itself. Your only job is to appreciate and keep your words to a minimum so you don’t ruin the experience for others.

As I’ve been thinking about Riquelme’s art, I’ve found myself comparing his art to another artist currently dominating the soccer art scene, Cristiano Ronaldo. In some respects, comparing Ronaldo and Riquelme is apples and oranges since they don’t play the same position. In fact, aside from their shared love of pouting, they are very different players in almost every respect. But in other ways, comparing the two makes it clear what’s respectively amazing about each of them.

There’s something about unparalleled athleticism in soccer that can come across as impure. With Riquelme, every touch mattered. His physical attributes didn’t allow him to push the ball past a player and sprint past him, so every touch needed a purpose. Every movement was under that much more scrutiny because he didn’t have Ronaldo athleticism to help him escape from otherwise precarious situations. As much as we hear of the need for a Plan B when Plan A doesn’t seem to be working, Riquelme never had much of a Plan B to rely on, so he doubled-down on Plan A. He had to think himself out of situations, like movie heroes who always seem to escape after continuously getting backed into corners. For Riquelme, when Plan A worked, the heavens opened, making his escape that much sweeter. Even those who rooted against him would often find themselves applauding when the final credits rolled.

Perhaps that why people who’ve watched the greats have found themselves fawning over Román after he announced his retirement from the game this weekend.

But it wasn’t just Ray Hudson.

Riquelme spent one year at Barcelona, leaving his beloved Boca Juniors for the first time to test himself on European playgrounds. While there, he was initially marginalized by Louis van Gaal, largely because he didn’t have time or space for artists who didn’t like to defend.

“[Louis] Van Gaal told me I was the best in the world when we had possession,” Riquelme explained, “but that it was like playing with ten men when we didn’t. He said he wasn’t sure about signing me, but I learned a huge amount there.”

A year after his arrival, Riquelme found himself at Villarreal. Yet despite his turbulent year in Barcelona, the Catalan club is taking part in saying goodbye to a legend. It says a lot that a player, who barely made an impression during one year at a club, is remembered on that club’s website upon retirement. But that’s Riquelme. Even those who really didn’t appreciate him, appreciate him, because good art is ultimately undeniable.

Thank you for everything, Román.

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