The iconic Argentine is running for vice-president at the Bombonera but has been the subject of a staggering ‘dirty tricks’ campaign
While River Plate were making a brave but ultimately unsuccessful defence of the Copa Libertadores title, on the other side of Buenos Aires a different type of struggle was being played out.
One that has now turned nasty.
The battle at Boca Juniors has little to do with events on the pitch – although it does revolve around one of the finest players ever to pull on the club’s blue and gold jersey.
Terse, eternally disgruntled and a sufferer of few fools, Juan Roman Riquelme is as an unlikely hero. But when he speaks, as he has been doing with some regularity in recent weeks, the whole of Argentina sits up and listens.
For that reason, the bombshell that he would be disputing the vice-presidency of Boca against the reigning administration in Sunday’s elections, while not quite overshadowing River’s Libertadores adventure, certainly rivalled the final for sheer volume of media attention.
Riquelme’s entry into politics also sent those currently in charge at La Bombonera into panic mode, terrified at the prospect of going head-to-head with a living legend.
At least, that much can be gauged by the reaction to Riquelme’s presence on the ticket headed by former Xeneize chief Jorge Amor Ameal, which has ranged from defiant to desperate and even borderline slanderous.
“I had Riquelme as a player and he was always divisive. He divided the dressing room and the board,” Boca president Daniel Angelici – who is supporting the candidacy of Christian Gribaudo – told Fox Sports.
Angelici also remarkably questioned Roman’s very allegiance to Boca: “He cannot say Angelici supports Huracan or Gribaudo supports Independiente; there are no photos or evidence of that. But there is to show he is a Tigre fan.”
Angelici’s current No.2, the famously outspoken Juan Carlos Crespi, went even further.
Responding to Riquelme’s suggestion that River fans would be rooting for the current administration – which is closely aligned with current Argentina president and former Boca boss Mauricio Macri – Crespi countered, “I hope the River chickens are happy if we win, because next year we’re going to f*** them in the a**.”
That verbal assault has been accompanied by a campaign to minimise Roman’s sterling reputation at the Bombonera that would make even that master of altering reality Joseph Stalin proud.
The No.10 was mysteriously airbrushed out of a photo commemorating Boca’s Intercontinental Cup defeat of Real Madrid in 2000.
Last Saturday, meanwhile, prior to a clash against Argentinos Juniors, police confiscated thousands of Riquelme face-masks from fans heading into the Bombonera on the flimsy excuse that they would make identifying troublemakers impossible.
That argument would perhaps have held more weight were it not for the fact that just one week earlier supporters had been allowed into the 2-0 win over Union sporting cut-outs of Gabriel Barbosa’s face in tribute to the Flamengo star’s late Libertadores heroics against River.
“Who has given more joy to Boca?” Riquelme fumed. “It is a sad, sad thing.”
On Wednesday, Riquelme told America that Macri had called him, in the middle of Argentina’s economic crisis, to express himself “concerned” by his decision to support Ameal against Angelici’s preferred presidential successor, Gribaudo.
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“You clearly love Boca, but I love them a little more,” Riquelme claims to have told the head of state when asked to sign a detente with Angelici, whom Macri referred to as “my Daniel” according to Riquelme.
The constant presence of River in the back and forth between candidates is no coincidence. The spectre of Marcelo Gallardo and the Millonarios haunts Boca, with their recent success in the Copa Libertadores contrasting painfully with the Xeneize’s own failings.
One statistic from the Angelici era stands out more than most: Boca have lost all five of their cup Superclasico ties, including this year’s Libertadores semi and, unforgettably, the 2018 final at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Boca may have developed financial stability and a mighty marketing machine, but it is no substitute for on-pitch success – particularly when one’s hated rivals are doing so well.
Riquelme’s role, as he says himself, would be devoted to addressing that footballing deficiency and ending Boca’s sorry run, most likely at the expense of coach Gustavo Alfaro, Carlos Tevez (another man closely linked with the current presidency) and a host of other players deemed not good enough for his Xeneize project.
Most observers place Ameal as favourite ahead of the elections, but footballing polls are rarely so straightforward.
Gribaudo has the advantage of counting on the gargantuan Boca political structure to turn out as many voters as possible for the ‘official’ list, often a decisive factor when turnout tends towards the low side.
Riquelme, therefore, has focused his energies in the last days of campaigning to ensuring that as many people as possible get down to the Bombonera on Sunday and cast their ballot.
If all goes to plan, though, Ameal will be elected president on Sunday, and Riquelme will be installed as his right-hand man, a move that most see as the first step on the road to the former Barcelona midfielder one day taking on the top job himself, just as his former Argentina team-mate Juan Sebastian Veron did at Estudiantes de La Plata.
Riquelme has the support of the fans and the no-nonsense character to make a splash – and, whatever happens at the weekend, his entrance into the electoral arena has shaken up the Boca world more than anybody else over the last two decades.