Both have statues of themselves at Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera, but that’s where the similarities end. One fought tooth and nail for every ball; the other never had to, it was drawn to him like a magnet, finding an extraordinary solace beneath his studs. One was involved in games only intermittently; the other orchestrated entire matches. One artfully fashioned the most intricate of bullets; the other ruthlessly fired them. One was a titan, visceral and emotive; the other an artist, cerebral and tranquil. They’re different in almost every way imaginable.
This most unlikely of duos were initially brought together by one thing: their mutual and undying love of a football club. It would be a relationship built solely upon that, and cemented via the remarkable success they shared with the club at the turn of the millennium when, together, they would lead Boca to three domestic titles and the club’s first Copa Libertadores and World Championship in over twenty years. But that’s as far as it went.
And so when Martín Palermo revealed this week that for his upcoming testimonial he will be “on the pitch with those who I consider my closest friends and were important in both my career and my life,” it came as no real surprise that journalists’ questions of whether Juan Román Riquelme would be joining him were greeted with a rather emphatic no.
Riquelme has remained mostly quiet on the situation, this week saying “what happens in the locker room, stays [in the locker room].” But that was never quite so. Two years ago, Palermo told Argentinian radio, “I am not a friend of [Riquelme’s], I have no relationship [with him]. The only thing that unites us is [to] defend the colours of Boca.” Those comments arrived shortly after Palermo scored twice in a 4-0 win over Arsenal de Sarandi, becoming Boca’s all-time top goalscorer. Visibly furious when Riquelme, who set up his record-breaking goal, celebrated the goal as if it were his own, Palermo’s anger only intensified after the game when, in the changing room, Riquelme quipped, “Anyone can score goals like that.”
Palermo retired in June of last year, at a time when Boca had gone almost three years without a title. Five years his junior, Riquelme inherited the captaincy and helped end Boca’s title drought by lifting the Apertura title last month. It was no real secret that Boca’s two biggest stars were never the best of friends, but, reunited in 2007 when Riquelme returned to the club following a falling out with Spanish club Villarreal and immediately inspired Boca to another Libertadores title, the future looked bright.
Palermo had overcome his injury problems and scored his fifth career hat-trick against Mexican side Atlas a year later to help fire Boca to another Libertadores semi-final, this time against Brazilian side Fluminense. It’s thought that the complete breakdown in the relationship truly began then. Having twice given his side the lead, Riquelme - who, according to Olé, had “painting the pitch with the most beautiful colours football has known” - harshly reprimanded goalkeeper Pablo Migliore, whose mistake gifted the Brazilians a second equaliser.
Migliore was a close friend of Palermo, and the striker was said to be furious with Riquelme’s outburst. Palermo had always placed the collective above the individual, and vehemently disagreed with Riquelme’s decision to attribute personal blame. Whatever relationship Román and San Martín might have had would not only completely break down, but create a dressing room divide that would almost tear the club in half. Boca’s Paraguayan defender Julio Caceres would publicly criticised Riquelme, and subsequently led ‘Team Palermo’. Hugo Ibarra would side with Riquelme, forming the heart of the playmaker’s clique. The divide became so great that some in the Argentinian press claim it contributed substantially to Boca’s revolving managerial door, with the club going through four coaches and six managerial changes in 24 months before Julio César Falcioni took the reigns last year. Something had to give, and it finally did when Palermo walked away from the game. The Boca dressing room breathed a collective sigh of relief, with Sebastian Battaglia revealing, “Now only the football side is discussed and that does us good. Martín’s exit defused the previous situation of who was with whom and who was with another.” It’s difficult to see Boca’s first title arriving almost immediately after Palermo’s retirement as mere coincidence.
There was little pretty about Boca’s charge to the title last year; so little, in fact, that Falcioni welcomed football fans who didn’t like what they were seeing on TV to change the channel when Boca were playing. Above all else, Boca’s title was down to a new found cohesion, team spirit, a solid work ethic and an unyielding collectiveness – ironically, the very virtues typified by Palermo. It was also one achieved largely without Riquelme, who spent much of the season on the sidelines through injury.
One reader of La Nación this week likened Boca’s most famous of double acts to Guns N’ Roses (hugely popular in Argentina, where the mullet still rules): “Riquelme is the melody, the artist, like Slash; Palermo is the strength, the voice of the goal, like Axl Rose.” Now, back in the Libertadores and with the arrival of Santiago Silva, there’ll be someone else screaming along to the artist’s melodies, though whether they’ll reach the same heights is highly unlikely.
For the first time in three years Boca fans are looking forward, but, meanwhile, their last chance to look back on a bygone epoch seems to have vanished. So fractioned has the relationship between Boca’s two most famous sons become that not even their sole mutual love is enough to bring one of football’s most beloved duos back together for one last show.
Rupert Fryer is an expert on South American football and is the co-founder and editor of southamericanfootball.co.uk