The retirement of Riquelme isn’t just the loss of a great player, it’s the loss of an idea.
Riquelme’s greatness isn’t defined by the highlight reel. The Argentine found beauty in the more subtle moments of the game. He carved up opposition defenses without them being aware of what was happening, dragged around the pitch like a puppet being made to dance by its puppeteer. You couldn’t recreate the things Riquelme did—and you wouldn’t even think to try them in the first place.
His style wasn’t for everyone, of course. You couldn’t have Riquelme in your side unless you planned on building the entire team around him, which managers such as Louis Van Gaal and Marcelo Bielsa were never willing to do. Riquelme wasn’t going to run very much or defend or press the opposition. He was going to make the team play at whatever pace he felt was best, even if it meant taking his time and slowing the game to a crawl. In the fast-paced, high-pressing game of the modern-era, Riquelme seemed to still be playing in a time when players treated beer as a training supplement, and cigarettes as a post-match cool-down. He was a reminder of the cerebral side of the game, where strength and speed and physicality were no match for quickness of thought or strength of imagination.
Riquelme was never fully appreciated in Europe, because he wasn’t a European-type player. He was the last of a dying casino online breed of a traditional South American number 10 who played behind two strikers—a nomad, constantly wandering around the pitch in search of space so he could work his magic. It’s incredible that Riquelme survived as long as he did in an age that has done everything possible to extinguish the traditional playmaker and the space he looks to operate. But making the improbable become reality was Riquelme’s specialty.
It is hard to pick a favorite Riquelme moment, because doing so seems unjust to who he was as a player. He wasn’t defined by thunderous moments of brilliance that made the earth shake; he was a cool, gentle river on a hot summer’s day—calming, elegant, beautiful, a billion little movements and ripples that together made something dazzling.
If I had to pick one moment, however, it might just be the time he nutmegged a defender without even touching the ball.
Did he know the defender was there? Did his teammate give a shout to leave it? Was it just dumb luck, or was that what was supposed to happen?”
I don’t want to know the answers to those questions. I want to live in a world where someone operates at such a higher plane of existence on the pitch that they calculate a million possible scenarios in an instant and decide to take the one that is borderline impossible.
The retirement of Riquelme isn’t just the loss of a great player, it’s the loss of an idea. Football still has room for artistry, but not nearly as much as it once did. The game has become too fast and physically demanding for players like Riquelme to continue to exist, and perhaps, when we look back on his career years from now, that will be his legacy. His play was a joyous rebellion against the Darwinian nature of the game, trading tackles for backheels and pressing for patience. There will never be another Riquelme, and it is our great joy to have seen him play, and our great sadness for knowing we will never see his like again.