With the passing of Diego Maradona, one of the most celebrated footballers of the last forty years, many tributes and articles have been written, recognising the brilliant technical ability he possessed and his ability to turn the sides he played on into winning teams at international and club level.
Maradona took up positions between midfield and the attackers where he linked, created and finished from the position which we all know as the number 10 role.
Argentina has been blessed with brilliant attacking players since Maradona helped Argentina lift the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. Out and out number 9s like Claudio Caniggia at Atalanta and Benfica, Abel Balboa at Roma, Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez at Valencia, Gabriel Batistuta at Fiorentina and Roma, Diego Milito at Inter Milan, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, just a few of the forwards who have been prominent in Europe.
Argentina also produced in the position which Maradona revolutionised, invented or improved upon, whichever way you prefer to look at it. It was perhaps an obvious thing to occur, where younger generations sought to emulate the footballer who had Argentina competing at the business end of two consecutive World Cups and had led Napoli to their only two Scudettos to this very day.
Juan Román Riquelme
Juan Román Riquelme started out his career at Argentinos Juniors before coming to the attention of Boca Juniors with whom he signed for in the Summer of 1996. This was quite a successful period for Boca and where Riquelme made his name, winning three Argentinian Championships, the Intercontinental Cup and two Copa Libertadores in his first stint at the club.
The attacking midfielder´s influence in the side saw him pick up two Footballer of the Year awards in Argentina and South American Player of the year in 2001. Internationally, he was a member of the national sides U20 World Cup winning team in 1997 and was top goalscorer in a squad which included Pablo Aimar, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso.
Argentina beat Uruguay in the final after overcoming an Irish side that included Damien Duff 1-0 in the semi final.
As is always the case, the top European clubs became interested in taking Riquelme to Europe and Barcelona signed him in the Summer of 2002. He lasted one season at the Nou Camp before heading to Villarreal the following Summer on loan and eventually signing for the Valencia based side permanently in 2005.
This was where the Argentine played his best football in Europe, helping Villarreal to a third placed finish in La Liga in 2005 and along with Diego Forlan ensured the club went deep into the Champions League the following season, losing at the semi final stage to Arsenal 1-0. The number 8 scored 45 goals in total at Villarreal between seasons 03/04 and 07/08, his influence was evident in how the side played and created in the final third.
Riquelme moved between the Spanish club and Boca Juniors regularly on loan before returning to the Bombonera in a permanent deal midseason 2008.
Riquelme kind of goes against the more often than not correct stereotype of a number 10 having to be short and having a low centre of gravity. He was quite tall at 1m 83cm, but watching him play dispelled the notion that he wasn’t as adept or technically gifted as the best who played the position.
While Riquelme was making his way through the ranks with Boca Juniors, over at River Plate Pablo Aimar, a year younger, was weaving his way to the top at El Monumental in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires.
On the international front Aimar along with Riquelme did not experience success in terms of tournament victories at Senior level but he did feature at the World Cup in both 2002 and in 2006 at Germany after being handed his debut by Marcelo Bielsa in 1999, mainly getting minutes as a substitute at both tournaments.
It was on the club scene where Aimar is best remembered particularly in La Liga. Hector Cuper brought the midfielder to Valencia in January 2001 and in his first season the Argentine contested the Champions League final, losing to Bayern Munich on penalties. The path to the final in Milan saw Valencia face Manchester United in the second group phase, Arsenal in the quarters and Leeds in the semi final.
Aimar had arrived in Europe and with a supporting cast of players of the quality of Spanish internationals Santiago Canizares, Ruben Baraja, Gaizka Mendieta and fellow Argentines Kily Gonzalez, Roberto Ayala and Mauricio Pellegrino, Valencia were on the cusp of a golden period domestically and in Europe.
Under the watch of Rafa Benitez, Valencia won the league title for the first time since 1971 in 01/02 and won the league and Uefa Cup in 03/04, Aimar instrumental in these title victories.
The Rio Cuarto native also played at Real Zaragoza, had a successful spell at Benfica and a short stint in Malaysia before returning to Argentina with River Plate in 2015.
Aimar´s small slight frame, nimble footwork and oversized jersey hanging off him made for quality aesthetics as he rode challenge after challenge while linking between midfield and attack.
‘El Burrito’ was another who played the ten role in and around the same era as Riquelme and Aimar. Irish football fans may remember Robbie Keane’s debut in April 1998, a Spring friendly game against an Argentina side preparing for the World Cup in France. Keane impressed that night but Ortega`s goal was the highlight, a beautiful chipped effort, sandwedging over a despairing Gary Breen in a 2-0 win for Daniel Passarella`s side.
Ortega left River Plate in January 1997 to begin his European adventure in Valencia before having short spells at Sampdoria, Parma and later six months in Fenerbahce. It was back at home in Argentina where he had most success, winning six league titles and a Copa Libertadores at River Plate and a league title in Rosario with Newell`s Old Boys in 2004.
A player similar in stature to Maradona from a physical aspect and also how he played, he was also a fiery competitor and was sent off in the 88th minute defeat against the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter final in France in 1998, two minutes before `that` Dennis Bergkamp goal for headbutting Edwin Van der Saar, after diving and failing to win a penalty.
Leaving the best until last, a matter of opinion, but yes. Messi has been playing at Barcelona since joining from Newell`s Old Boys in July 2000. Ten time League Champion, four Champions Leagues, seven Copa del Rey medals, eight times leading goalscorer in La Liga including this season 2020/21, where he scored 30 league goals in a struggling Barcelona side where his head supposedly ‘hasn’t been in the game’. He has played 50 games for Barcelona across all competitions this season and has scored 40 goals and 11 assists.
A player who always seems to do the right thing with the ball, play it to the man in the best position for the good of the team. Three times a losing finalist in the Copa America with the National Team and a runner up to Germany in the World Cup of 2014 in Brazil, sometimes the fact that Messi hasn’t any titles for Argentina is used as an argument against him being greater than Maradona, but that truly is a matter of personal opinion. To be fair to him he has always performed somewhere between very well and exceptional for Argentina, just coming up short in four major tournaments.
La Pulga, was handed his La Liga debut for Barcelona by Frank Rijkaard against Espanyol in October 2004 and has been an ever present on the team since. At 33 years of age, it`s hard to know how long more we will see of Messi close to the top of his game as he has been for most of his career. Maybe that is what sets him apart, sustained levels of brilliance for close to sixteen seasons.
Probably, maybe, possibly the greatest to ever play the game, he has certainly been one of the best that has come out of Argentina to perform in the number 10 role.