Argentina will always be a soccer mad nation which has produced a host of sporting sons from Maradona to Messi. Soccer always had and will hold iconic status in this country and of course the sporting superstars from the Tango capital will always be catapulted from the locality of Boca Juniors to a thrilling international stage where they have to, not just master the beauty of side-stepping and nimble footwork but also the ‘bolero’ of how to tackle the charging bulls of soccer and equally, how to do the aristocratic ‘minuet dance’ in the green meadows of Paris and the “wemblies” of London.
In Argentina, who wears the number 10 shirt at Boca Juniors, is the birthplace of legends like Diego Maradona, who thrilled the crowd at the 86 edition of the World Cup in Mexico City, with a little hand from god. It was his sublime skill that got Argentina the title and he showed that he was truly a pocket dynamite and a speedy Gonzales with the soccer ball at his feet and with the hand raised to the heavens. Maradona, has set the de-facto yardstick that all Argentinian players will be assessed and measured by in raw skill, finesse, speed and precision. Still the player that comes to mind, as a perennial ugly duckling, who never really became a swan, yet showed a little club called Villareal in Spain, the beauty of laid-back, slow and lazy soccer, equally-breathtaking in implementation, skill, penetration and flow, is non other than Juan Roman Riquelme – the heir to Maradona for the Boca Juniors number 10 shirt. He was never nimble and speedy, only masterful at side-stepping, with the ball glued to his feet and was merciless as a playmaker in his precision long-range passes, which forwards accepted with a heavenly clap and a celebratory huddle. What Riquelme showed is, that you don’t necessarily need to be a hare to win the race, as long as you have the graceful art and movement of a “senior’s tango” in your blood, when a Mediterranean ethos and wily crab-like movements were center to his beautiful ‘pastoral’ style of soccer.
Then to the maestro himself, Lionel ‘The Lion’ Messi, the most talented of them all, who has gone to the pinnacle of success at the Nou Camp but is still to reach the exospheric heights of Maradona at home or at the World Cup. I still remember, Messi’s chance to claim victory against Germany in the second half of the 2012 final but he missed and his legacy was only that of a bridesmaid and not the bride at the alter of international glory. Messi, still, is a sublime mover, with finesse and speed, a true swan on the soccer field, who does and will attract crowds in hoards for the cathedral of soccer in the Catalan hometown of Barcelona. With Messi there, you don’t have to fear a half-complete legacy like Sa Grada Familia, as Barcelona is bound to taste more and more success even with Luis Henrique at the helm. Then who can forget Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguerro, who themselves have kept the Maradona flag flying by being Maradona-like in stature and skill and by joining the Maradona family as a son-in-law (and of course being a sublime player when at his best) respectively.
I have always loved the brand of soccer played by the Argentinian players, but my favorite by far, is Riquelme, who showed that you can have the islander mentality (laid-backness) and still reach cult status for your ball-maneuvering skills and humbleness off-field. When Villareal lost to Arsenal in the Champions league semi-final in the 2005-2006 season, fans hung a huge banner outside Riquelme’s house to spur him on after the anti-climax at this biggest event of soccer in Europe. That is how he touched the hearts of the public, not just with the honesty of skill but also with the rawness of tearful humility and patience on and off the ball and pitch.
Soccer is a cult sport, the biggest sport in the world but it only takes the humble beginnings of Buenos Aires to take a young boy to the heights of golden dreams, if not silver linings. Argentina is a country of abundant silver and will continue to win golden boots while streaking silver linings on broken dreams. In this land of Che, it was a man far from a revolutionary, who with slow footwork and bucolic soccer that touched my wretched heart. Who said you need to be like the Romans when your middle name is Roman? Sometimes, what brings out the best is when you’re just a misfit who comes to a small town in the middle of nowhere, and transforms the effervescence of dreams around, to an attainable reality. Riquelme did just that. He was the pin-feathered duckling who never made it into a perpetual fairy tale but lived a story worth reciting even a hundred years from now.