Remembering Juan Román Riquelme's struggles at BarcelonaJuan Román Riquelme was one of the most beloved South American players of all time. His qualities as an old-school number ten, his technique, his passing qualities, and his capacity to raise the level of the team he played for on his days were something that made him a very beloved figure, particularly with the main club of his career, Argentinian giants Boca Juniors.
However, Riquelme's time in Europe was very different from what he enjoyed in his home country of Argentina. The maestro had a lot of ups and downs there, and one of the lowest moments of his career was his time with Spanish colossus, FC Barcelona. This failure was due to a lot of different reasons and Riquelme himself doesn't remember it very fondly.
Why Juan Román Riquelme failed at Barcelona? Let's find out.
The contextRiquelme started in the Argentinos Juniors youth setup, one of the best academies in Argentinian football, in the mid-90s and was signed in 1996, at 18 years old, by Boca Juniors. While he started slowly, he went on to become one of the club's best players and, nowadays, is viewed as a living legend of the institution.
His first era with Boca is highly celebrated, leading the club to arguably the best period of their history, winning the Copa Libertadores twice in 2000 and 2001, while also winning the International Cup against no other than Real Madrid in the process. Riquelme's performance against Madrid made him known worldwide, becoming one of the most sought-after players in the Argentinian league.
However, he didn't show much willingness to leave at the time, and he eventually stated that one of the main reasons he left Boca in the summer of 2002, after almost seven years there, was because one of his brothers was kidnapped and this led to Juan Román paying a random, which played a huge role in his decision to leave Argentina because he didn't want to put his family in risk.
Thus, FC Barcelona decided to pay 11 million euros, a hefty sum at the time for a player in the Argentinian league, in the summer of 2002 and everything seem poised for Riquelme to prove his worth in La Liga.
FC Barcelona and Louis van GaalBarcelona in 2002 were in a state of crisis. That has to be said. The sale of Luis Figo to Real Madrid two years prior had started a massive decline within the club and president Joan Gaspart was despised by the supporters in the coming years. The club was struggling to make it to the UEFA Champions League, and their best player, Rivaldo, had left to join AC Milan in the summer of 2002.
Therefore, Gaspart made two decisions that would end up contradicting one another: he brought back former manager Louis van Gaal into the fold and signed Juan Román Riquelme.
While van Gaal won two leagues and a Copa del Rey in three seasons during his first tenure at the club, he wasn't very well-liked by the supporters, the press, and many of his players, which caused a lot of issues and wasn't the best choice to stabilize a club that was in a deep state of crisis. And that played a role in Riquelme's time at Barcelona.
This was a combination that was set to cause a lot of problems for both parties involved.
"A political signing"The truth of the matter is that Louis van Gaal wasn't interested in Riquelme. He wasn't a request from the manager's end, but rather a signing that Gaspart did to appease Barcelona supporters and generate a bit of excitement in the transfer window. However, van Gaal didn't have a plan for the Argentinian midfielder, and that led to a lot of problems.
The reason for this is that, according to van Gaal himself, Riquelme was "a political signing" and that already caused a lot of friction between him and Gaspart. While he wasn't overly insulting to the Argentinian, they never really got along, and Riquelme struggled with the tactical setup at Barcelona.
The Dutchman would play with no number ten, which was Riquelme's position, and had to slot as a winger. Riquelme was a possession-based player and the physical demands of playing as a winger were not suited to his game, which resulted in him usually starting on the bench.
Ultimately, this combination proved to be a failure and Barcelona struggled during large portions of the season, which prompted Gaspart to sack van Gaal mid-way.
The aftermathWhile van Gaal was sacked, Riquelme's situation didn't improve, and kept being used as a sub for the remainder of the season. Such was his decline that he was loaned for two seasons at Villarreal, one of the smallest clubs in La Liga at the time, to get his career back on track.
Much has been said in Argentina over the years about the relationship between van Gaal and Riquelme. The player himself has stated that the Dutchman told him that "When you have the ball, you're the best player on the pitch. When you don't have it, we're playing with a man down", basically stating that his lack of work without the ball was a problem.
However, Riquelme has also stated that he respects Louis van Gaal because he was sincere and upfront with him, which was something that was very significant to him. The Dutchman hasn't said much over the years about Riquelme, although he has stated something similar to the player's quote about his work without the ball, so that was clearly a problem for him.
All in all, the biggest issue with Riquelme at Barcelona was that he was signed by the president without much thought about how he fit into the manager's plans and how things were going to work out, which is great evidence of how bad everything was going at the time for Barcelona.