Boca Juniors 2 Real Madrid 1
Toyota Intercontinental Cup final, National Stadium, Tokyo, 28 November 2000
"If we have to travel from A to B, most of us take the six-lane highway and get there as quickly as possible. Riquelme would choose the winding mountain road, the scenic route which takes him six hours instead of two." — Jorge Valdano
On 28 November 2000, Juan Román Riquelme invited the world to join him in Japan on what was perhaps his greatest trip of all. However, it would be the man who you'd find speeding down that six-lane highway whose goals would ultimately crown Boca Juniors world champions. The greatest night in the club's history would be the tale of Argentinian football's odd couple and one which would remind us all that football takes all sorts.
Real Madrid arrived in Asia on the cusp of a revolution. Luís Figo had joined the club from Barcelona for the biggest fee in the game's history. Two years previously, the team with which Alfredo Di Stéfano defined the European Cup, had their hands back on those big ears, defeating Juventus to end a 30-year wait. Los Blancos followed up that victory by seeing off Héctor Cúper's Valencia at the Stade de France to claim a second European title in three years. It would be Boca Juniors, however, who were the ones on the edge of the greatest decade in their history: their penalty shootout victory over Palmeiras in June 2000 would be the first of four Copa Libertadores to arrive in La Boca in the 2000s and this victory over Real Madrid the first of two world titles.
Club world championships, we're told, are little more than an inconvenience1 for Champions League winners (at least, that's what the Anglophone press would have us believe); a trip to the Far East that serves only to disrupt the season. That certainly wasn't the case for Florentino Pérez and his ambitions of world domination. Steve McManaman recalls the president's reaction to their defeat in his book, El Macca: "Pérez thundered, 'How are we ever going to conquer the Asian market with performances like that?'"
The Galácticos era would ensure those ambitions were eventually realised, though the Zidanes y Pavones approach would produce little in terms of silverware. Boca's expansion into the world market would instead owe a debt to on-field achievements, though their golden era would arrive via a not dissimilar modus operandi under new president, Mauricio Macri. He, too, intended to hoover up the best talent available, but in contrast to Pérez, Macri was playing the long game. "We made a 180-degree turn," admitted Macri in Boquita, Martín Caparros's story of the club.
Boca were in extreme financial difficulties in 1995 when Macri was elected president and his first act was to implement a complete overhaul of the club, radically transforming the business model — or perhaps more accurately, finally introducing one, as IESE Insight Review noted: "Efforts were made to optimise the resources coming from members and season ticketholders via telephone service centres, a decentralised ticket sales system and, for companies, a special section with corporate box seating at the stadium. A professional management system akin to that of a private company was instituted, while the club, in accordance with Argentinian law, remained a non-profit organisation."
On the field, Boca would rely on their academy, promising teenagers they managed to pinch from around the country2 and the most talented players from other top clubs in Argentina that carried resale potential3. In 12 years under Macri, Boca would earn close to €100 million through player sales — the majority of whom headed for Europe. Like Pérez, the Intercontinental Cup held importance for Macri's plans for global expansion, but while his financial achievements would help him to be named mayor of the City of Buenos Aires in 2007, it was the 16 trophies4 that defined the Macri era — nine of which would arrive under the man who proved to be his greatest signing of all, Carlos Bianchi5.
A prolific striker in both Argentina and France, the Larry David doppelganger moved from Vélez Sarsfield — via a short and unsuccessful stint with Roma — having led the Liniers outfit to three league championships and the club's only Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup titles. Los Bianchi Boys, as his Boca team are now known, came and went according to Macri's blueprint6, but the titles kept arriving. Bianchi says the Intercontinental Cups a chance to "prove that you and your team are capable of reaching the next level. Facing the European champions with their star-studded internationals and often-limitless financial clout is extremely motivating for us South Americans." This defeat of Real Madrid would signal the start of a dynasty.
"Much of the pre-match talk had surrounded the world's most expensive player, Figo, who was making his first appearance on a global stage," said the report in World Soccer magazine. "But Real's £37.5m Portuguese star was eclipsed by two Boca players in particular — Palermo and Riquelme."
Martín Palermo is Riquelme's antithesis. There are statues of both at La Bombonera, but that's where the similarities end. The latter was blessed with an immense talent and is defined by his unquenchable thirst for the aesthetic. Sensitive, demanding, quixotic, cerebral, delicate and enigmatic, Román is an artist masquerading7 as a footballer. The former is all heart. A warrior. El Titán, they called him. He's visceral and emotive. Palermo cared only that the ball found the back of the net; how it ended up there was an irrelevance. In his study into Argentinian masculinities, the anthropologist Eduardo Archetti ponders the "the contradictory character of Argentinian football… [where] male individual virtues are transformed into contrasting styles and moral attitudes." Never were they more contrasting than between Boca's two most famous sons.
"The only thing that unites us is [to] defend the colours of Boca," admitted Palermo in 2010, and their very public falling-out undeniably contributed to the three barren years for Los Xeneizes prior to Julio César Falcioni's arrival as coach in 2011. Each with their own clique of dedicated disciples, they split the dressing-room in half during that period8. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the relationship between the two soured, but their philosophical differences are believed to have come to a head during Boca's 2008 Copa Libertadores semi-final exit at the hands of Fluminense. Riquelme was sensational that evening, twice putting Boca ahead. He "painted the pitch with the most beautiful colours football has known," said the report in Olé. The same could not be said for Boca's goalkeeper that night, as Pablo Migliore's error gifted Flu an equaliser from which Boca would not recover. Riquelme was furious and made his feelings known to Migliore at the final whistle. For Palermo, who always placed the collective above all else, it was the final straw.
Both would leave Boca after receiving plaudits from around the world for their respective performances against Real Madrid in Tokyo but it was never in doubt that both would one day return. Riquelme joined Louis van Gaal's Barcelona in 2002 for around €11 million after leading Boca to a repeat of their Libertadores success. He claims he never wanted to leave Boca in the first place but when the offer arrived from Catalonia he was told that if he truly loved the club, he would make the sacrifice. He went but he left Barça a year later9, having made little to no impact at Camp Nou, to join an emerging Villarreal, where he would enjoy a much more productive spell.
Riquelme's role in hoisting El Submarino Amarillo to within a penalty of the 2006 Champions League final can not be overstated. Surrounded by South Americans and forming a formidable partnership with Diego Forlán, he led the club to a third-place finish in the 2004-05 season, notching a career-best 15 goals along the way and earning a nomination for Fifa's World Player of the Year. So integral was his role, there was something oddly Romántic about the moment when Jens Lehmann dived to his left to stop his weak penalty; of the moment Riquelme stopped dead in his tracks, looking around him as he tried desperately to ascertain what had just happened. "It was one of the saddest memories of my career and one I will always remember," he said. "I thought we were stronger than Arsenal and deserved to play in the final."
He came home a year later, following one of the many clashes with figures of authority that characterised his career, this time with Villarreal's Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini. There were multiple offers from top European clubs, including genuine interest from Tottenham Hotspur but, for Riquelme, they were never an option. Home was always where his heart was. He publicly thanked Spurs for their interest, but confirmed Boca as his only possible destination. During his initial loan spell back in La Boca, Riquelme led the club almost single-handedly to its fourth Copa Libertadores of the decade, finishing second-top scorer with eight goals (including three of Boca's five during the two-legged final against Mano Menezes's Grêmio) before sealing his permanent return by agreeing to the biggest contract in Argentinian football — a deal that stipulated he would play his final season without pay.
"I love Boca," he reminded the fans as the club went into decline after winning the 2008 apertura title10. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be working here for free. I'm the only idiot who works for free, so I don't think anyone can come and lecture me about my responsibilities." It wouldn't be the only time he'd play without a wage. Less than a year into a new deal so controversial that then club treasurer — and now club president — Daniel Angelici resigned from his position, Riquelme once again managed to climb above his superiors to the safety of the moral high ground by donating his wages for the season back to the club after injuries significantly restricted his appearances in Falcioni's 2011 apertura-winning side, saying, "I want this money to go to help the kids at Boca or to fix the dressing-rooms."
Palermo returned in 2004 following three-and-a-half mostly miserable years in La Liga, first with Villarreal and then with Real Betis and Alaves. The running joke in Argentina is that God is directing his own movie and has chosen Palermo as the star. It's a concept that fits the remarkable life of an extraordinary man, one who seems to seek out adversity only so it can be heroically overcome. He was hot property following the 2000 Intercontinental final and was sold to Villarreal for €7.5 million soon after. A barren spell for his new club finally ended one November evening against Levante. As his joy and frustrations poured out in front of the away support, the stadium wall gave way. The structure, and a fair few of the Valencian community, rained down upon him, breaking his tibia and fibula.
Palermo also infamously failed with a hat-trick of spot-kicks against Colombia in a World Cup qualifier in 1999. While most scoff at his failings, the events may actually be held up as testament to the desire of a man so willing to put everything on the line in the quest of his goals. Few would have the courage to step up for the second, while he may well be the only one with enough steel to take the third. Then there's the famous one-legged goal, or 'gol de las muletas' — the goal on crutches. During Boca's 2000 Copa Libertadores quarter-final against River Plate, following six months spent on the sidelines after ripping an anterior cruciate ligament, Palermo (literally) hobbled on for the last 15 minutes and somehow managed to score in what would be the pivotal moment of the Libertadores-winning campaign that booked their clash with Real Madrid.
His most emotional moment of all, however, arrived in 2006. "Following his newborn son's premature death [on the Wednesday], he asked to play the following Sunday," wrote Marcela Mora y Araujo in the Guardian. "People criticised this decision: at a time of mourning, he should have been at home with his family, they said. Boca fans praised him: his loyalty and commitment unswerving." He scored twice that day and left the field in floods of tears; thousands joined him. In Riquelme's absence, Palermo helped Boca to two more continental crowns, scoring in both finals as they claimed 2004 and 2005 editions of South America's secondary club competition, the Copa Sudamericana. The Libertadores, however, would evade him until Román's triumphant return.
By 2010, three years and another league championship after Riquelme came home, the true extent of the breakdown of their relationship was exposed in the most dramatic of settings. "I am not a friend of [Riquelme's], I have no relationship [with him]," Palermo told Argentinian radio just days after becoming Boca's all-time top-goalscorer with two goals in a 4-0 win over Arsenal de Sarandí. It was supposed to be Palermo's moment, the one in which he wrote himself into history, the one that would cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats. The Boca fans had a huge banner on which they had repeatedly updated El Titán's total following every strike that season. It was the moment everyone had been waiting for, perhaps the greatest of his life. But one Riquelme would deny him. Instead, the aftermath of that goal has become the defining image of their turbulent relationship.
Riquelme had drifted unnoticed to the edge of the Arsenal box in time to receive a square ball from Cristian Erbes. He looked up and played a smart one-two with Nicolás Gaitán, before shrugging off his marker to find himself one-on-one with the keeper from 12 yards. Gol de Román, gol de Román, cried TV Publica. Riquelme, though, had other ideas. As always, Palermo was lurking. Riquelme popped the ball off with the outside of his boot, leaving Palermo a tap-in for goal 219. For history. Hoooy, Martín, Martín, Martííííííín. Riquelme peeled away, arms outstretched... in the opposite direction. Palermo set off after him, at first looking slightly bewildered. His stare then morphed into a look of utter contempt as he gave up the chase. Half the Boca side embraced San Martín. The other formed a group hug with El Diez firmly in the middle.
Boca's two greatest sons had torn the team in half. It's said that tensions grew after the game, with Riquelme quipping, "Anyone can score goals like that." From that moment on, La Bombonera was no longer big enough for the both of them. "I won't talk about it," Palermo told Radio de la Red. "What happened is out there for all to see." Something had to give. It finally did when Palermo called time on his glittering career in 2011. "Now only the football side of things is discussed and that does us good," admitted Sebastián Battaglia11. "Martín's exit defused the previous situation of who was with one and who was with the other."
It's a context that makes that evening at the National Stadium in Tokyo all the more special, for it would be one of those magical nights when the two came together; one could not have achieved what he did without the other. Both teams lined up with what can most accurately be described as variations of a 4-3-3. Carlos Bianchi went with an interpretation of the archetypal Argentinian 4-3-1-2 but with Riquelme drifting from a starting position on the left and Marcelo Delgado supporting Palermo from the right, meaning the shape would morph in and out of a 4-3-2-1. Vicente Del Bosque opted for a lop-sided 4-3-3, with Guti rarely anywhere near the left wing, ostensibly vacating the space for the onrushing Roberto Carlos, who would be Madrid's biggest goal-threat throughout.
Palermo and Riquelme proved the difference but it was Bianchi who provided them with the platform. In terms of talent, Boca couldn't compete and so Bianchi did what he could: he devised a system that improved his side's chances. "It wasn't exactly 'la nuestra'," the Argentinian football writer historian Ezequiel Fernández Moores said. "It was 'la suya', [or] 'Carlito's way'... Riquelme and his careful ball possession was la nuestra, but Boca's pragmatism was not. [They were] cautious, and when you think that your team is inferior, you just defend and wait for your rival's mistakes." Bianchi's side was broken, conceptually a 7-1-2. The back four was obdurate, its full-backs showing little desire to get forward. The midfield three behind Riquelme were stoppers, intent solely on restricting space for a talented opposition. Boca would work hard and look to counter. Riquelme carried the creative burden and was charged with intermittently providing those around him with much-needed breathers.
There was little respite in the opening stages, however, as the game started at a frantic pace that saw Boca take the lead inside three minutes. Geremi won a throw following a tussle with Riquelme on the halfway line — pretty much all the Cameroonian would win from Boca's enganche all evening. He held the ball above his head and looked for an option as the television director turned his attentions to El Diez. By the time said director's interest had returned to the game, Geremi had thrown the ball straight to Colombian destroyer Mauricio Serna. The Madrid full-back didn't react to the transition; Delgado did, instantly running off Fernando Hierro's shoulder and making straight for the space behind.
Senna cushioned the dropping ball to the 37-year-old José Basualdo, who spotted Delgado's run and curled a wonderful pass outside of Geremi and into the channel behind. Delgado was away. He headed straight for the byline before looking up to see Palermo darting in between Aitor Karanka and Roberto Carlos, who himself had been caught too high up the pitch. To say Roberto Carlos was twice as quick as Palermo may be doing the Brazilian an injustice; it may be equally unfair to Palermo to suggest his instinct for goal was twice as keen as the Brazilian's was to defend. The goal was — well, it was very Palermo. Delgado delayed and delayed, allowing his labouring strike partner to reach the six yard box before his perfect square gifted El Titán a tap-in. Delgado el centro para Palermo. Gol. Gooooooool. Breath. Gooooooool. Breath. Gooooooyyyoooool de Boca cried Telemundo. Paleeeermo! Boca uno, cero Real Madrid.
"I don't think we underestimated them," Del Bosque told reporters later that night. "They just started better than us — with devastating consequences." Madrid remained calm, however, and initially appeared to react well to the opening goal. Having identified that Battaglia was more intent on holding his position to the right of Boca's midfield three than attempting to look for the ball further up the field, Roberto Carlos positioned himself between Battaglia and the right-back Hugo Ibarra for the rest of the first half. McManaman drifted over to that side in an attempt to free the Brazilian and, just two minutes after going behind, the two combined to win a throw.
Roberto Carlos lofted the ball to Raúl, but his chest down to Guti was short. Battaglia nipped in to rob him on the edge of the Boca area before nudging the ball forward to Riquelme12. By this point, like Delgado just three minutes earlier, Palermo was already off and running, dashing between Hierro and Geremi and straight for the Madrid half. Riquelme's first touch allowed him to turn and open up his body. He took the briefest of glances upfield and effortlessly sprayed his pass all of 60 yards. By the time the ball had dropped, around 25 yards from Iker Casillas and the Real Madrid goal, Geremi had caught up. But Riquelme's pass was as perfect as they come. Leaning as he sliced across the ball, Román achieved sufficient backspin to have the ball grind almost to a halt as it bounced up off the turf. Had it run on another full circumference, Palermo would probably have lost the race with Geremi. Had it required a first touch to be taken, you doubt whether Palermo would have possessed the technique to evade his defender. But so perfect was the ball, Riquelme's first forward pass of the night, he didn't have to. Palermo didn't even have to check his stride.
As the ball sailed over San Martín's head, you wondered where on earth Casillas was. Why did he never come? At that moment, his decision to stay on his goal line seems poor. Two seconds later, however, as the ball's trajectory was drastically altered by the backspin as it bounced up in front of the Boca forward, it became apparent that Madrid's young keeper, whether by calculation or not, had made the right call. Had he rushed from his goal, that bounce would have left him in no man's land. The ball bounced just once more, travelling no more than four or five yards. Palermo had just one thing on his mind. The only thing that was ever on his mind. He managed to hold off Geremi and struck the ball on the second bounce, sending it across goal and underneath the diving Casillas.
Palermo hit the deck. Arms clumsily stretched out in front of him, he slid across the turf before popping up to peel away along the touchline, glancing back at his colleagues — who were still halfway up the field — with a look of immense joy and shock. The cry of 'gol' that followed on Telemundo wasn't one for the scrapbook. It was staggered. Broken. The tone akin to that of the teenager who works in every shop that Homer Simpson wanders into. Over on Radio Mitre, Alejandro Fantino was thanking God, over and over again. Five minutes in and Boca were 2-0 up against the mighty Galácticos. Against Figo, Raúl, Hierro and Roberto Carlos. ¡Increíble! "To be honest, no one prepares for that, it was a surprise, especially against a team like Real Madrid," Palermo admitted immediately after the game. "I am used to scoring but this was very special, a spectacular start for which nobody could have planned. I will remember this night for the rest of my life."
"We were our own worst enemies," said Del Bosque. "It was very unusual for us to be caught twice like that so early." But caught they were. The commentator still hadn't recovered his breath by the time a frenzied opening almost produced a third goal just 90 seconds later. As Madrid put together their first extended period of passing, Claude Makélélé exchanged passes with McManaman and Karanka before laying the ball off to Hierro, who was intent on spraying one of his trademark long passes. He looked up, elbows sticking out like chicken wings in that renowned stance of his, but decided against it, instead rolling his foot over the ball and pushing it to his left. It was then that he saw his pass.
Vicente Del Bosque's setup asked Roberto Carlos to man the entire left flank, and he spent most of the evening as wide forward. Spotting the Brazilian, Hierro floated a 40-yard pass right onto his colleague's chest. Hugo Ibarra's position was good, he planted his feet and got square on, but, anticipating the Brazilian would chest the ball down in front of him, the Boca defender committed. Roberto Carlos, eyes never once leaving the ball, saw Ibarra stepping towards him and chested the ball up and over the defender's head. It dropped onto his 24" right thigh before settling on the deck. Jorge Bermúdez rushed to close him down, but a drop of a shoulder took him away from the tackle before his right foot smashed a shot against the bar. So hard was it struck, the ball had almost cleared the penalty area by the time it returned to earth.
The warning signs were there for Boca. And if their two goals arrived as something of a shock, Roberto Carlos's certainly did not. And with the way in which the game had begun, neither was it a surprise that Madrid would get back into the contest so soon. Whether instructed by Bianchi or not, Battaglia dropped increasingly deep in an effort to help Ibarra with the flying Brazilian, but their attempts proved futile. This time the move began at left-back, as Roberto Carlos's attempt at a long pass almost took Battaglia off his feet — a blow from which the midfielder hadn't recovered by the time the ball flew past Óscar Córdoba a couple of minutes later. Having taken the wind out of the Boca man's sails, the ball ballooned up into the air before Riquelme calmly cushioned it back to Senna, who played square to Basualdo. As Delgado and Riquelme switched flanks, returning to their starting positions either side of Palermo, Basualdo appeared caught in two minds, and laboriously scuffed his pass between the two of them and straight to Geremi.
Riquelme's unwillingness to track back at first appeared insignificant — indeed, Basualdo's key function on the left of the midfield three was to provide cover for such an eventuality, and the veteran instantly slotted back in front of left-back Aníbal Matellán — but it would lead to an overload on Boca's right which would eventually provide Figo with the time and space to deliver a deep cross that would result in the equaliser. Between them, Basualdo and Matellán could chase and press Geremi and Figo. A problem arose when Makélélé joined in. With Riquelme wandering aimlessly further up the pitch, Basualdo was eventually drawn infield, leaving Matellán facing two Madrid players. To compensate, Boca's entire back-line essentially shifted across.
Anticipating a deep cross, Raúl allowed Guti to dart into the space at the near post and preoccupy Bermúdez and took up his own position against the shorter Ibarra at the far post. As the ball sailed over Raúl's head, Ibarra should simply have headed the ball out of play for a corner. By that stage he was well aware that Roberto Carlos was playing as a de facto left-winger and that the Brazilian was likely to be lurking. Instead, the Boca right-back aimlessly headed the ball up into the air. Roberto Carlos took the ball down on his chest and hammered a thunderous volley inside Córdoba's near post and into the top corner. The Boca keeper got a hand to the ball and should probably have kept it out. But he didn't. Madrid were back in the game.
The Spaniards continued to pour forward and the opening quarter of an hour nearly produced a fourth goal when Guti was allowed to drift untracked between the lines to pick up a pass from Makélélé and charge at Boca's for once unprotected backline, before laying the ball off to Raúl on the edge of the box. Guti darted to his right for the return, but Raúl instead turned to his left and opened up his body to drive a shot at goal before electing to attempt one of his trademark chips. Córdoba was beaten. But the man who would go on to become Madrid's all-time top goalscorer got too much on it and sent the ball a yard over the bar.
Boca were on the ropes and looking increasingly in danger of being overwhelmed. They needed something. One moment just to reassure themselves that they weren't out of their depth. That they could compete. They looked to their talisman. To their one individual who appeared to be on a level playing field with the millionaires in white. That moment arrived on 20 minutes, after Hierro had beaten Palermo to a lofted ball forward and stabbed it straight into Riquelme's path. El Diez turned to play the ball to his right as Geremi approached, but instead executed a Cruyff turn and headed toward the left wing. Geremi poked out a foot, Riquelme rolled his own over the top of the ball and out of the Cameroonian's reach. Figo drifted back, sandwiching Riquelme between the two. Riquelme checked to pass the ball back down the line, then checked again, leaping over another Geremi lunge and heading for the by-line, stroking the ball with the outside of his boot in order to get that all important half a yard in front of his marker that would allow him to get across the defender. He did — and Geremi hauled him to the ground. "Riquelme can change the game," Telemundo reassured its audience.
Riquelme himself took the free-kick, some five yards in from the touchline, and curled a shot for the far top corner. Casillas rose and beat it away. But it was a chance. A chance created from nothing. And in 40 seconds, Riquelme had levelled the playing field somewhat, reminding his side they too could still pose a threat. There were more chances before the break. Palermo was inches away from converting a Delgado cross at the far post. Riquelme tested Casillas with another set piece. At the other end, Raúl headed a McManaman corner wide from a few yards out after Córdoba was lost underneath the ball's flight. Makélélé made an unusual surge forward to find space inside the box, but wasted his chance. Boca tired as the break approached, but remained steadfast.
The second half almost saw Boca instantly restore their two-goal lead, but Riquelme's wonderfully curled free-kick brought the save of the game out of Casillas. Riquelme took the resulting corner and his wicked inswinger was just inches away from providing Palermo the chance to head into an almost empty net at the far post. It served as another reminder to Madrid that the Argentinians had more to give. The next goal had to go Madrid's way if they were to salvage anything from the game. But Boca were carrying out Bianchi's plan to perfection. "The tournament coincided with the end of our football season. That meant training had to be fairly light and mostly tactical," Bianchi explained. Never was that more evident than 12 minutes into the second half when, for the only time all evening, Boca showed just how well-drilled they were by perfectly executing an offside trap that saw Geremi's headed equaliser ruled out.
Del Bosque had identified that Boca's right side was where most joy would be found and McManaman moved increasingly left to join his great friend Roberto Carlos in an attempt to go two-on-two with Battaglia and Ibarra. And it was from that very situation that Madrid went within inches of an equaliser. McManaman committed Battaglia before his short pass left Roberto Carlos one-on-one with Ibarra. The Boca full-back stood off, reluctant to commit and allow the Brazilian's searing pace to exploit the space behind him. That allowed Figo the time to come across and receive the ball on the edge of the box before spinning Serna and rolling in Raúl, who dispatched the ball past Córdoba and high into the corner of the same net Palermo had twice made bulge. But the flag came to Boca's rescue once again, with replays showing Raúl's leading foot just half a yard beyond Matellán.
McManaman was then withdrawn, replaced by the Brazilian Savio, who took up his position as an orthodox left-winger, offering balance to a shape that became symmetrical, with specific instructions to get at Ibarra whenever possible. Within two minutes, Ibarra was booked for shoving Savio off the field. Figo's ambitious effort from the resulting free-kick almost caught Córdoba out, with the Boca keeper having to scramble across goal to tip the Portuguese's dipping effort over the bar. Madrid continued to probe, but Boca constricted, forming a seven-man blockade in front of their goal.
As Diego Estévez puts it in his book recording over a century of Boca Juniors, 103: Más de un Siglo Azul y Amarillo, "The rest of the match was played out between the attacks of Real Madrid and the counterattacks of Boca Juniors." Fernando Morientes replaced Makélélé to offer a focal point as Madrid began crossing into the box more frequently. Raúl went close to heading home from a few yards after Savio had beaten Ibarra to cross to the far post; Delgado wasted a golden opportunity to make it three after getting in behind on the right, while Riquelme's corners continued to create chances for Boca.
In between those transitions, however, the importance of Riquelme's performance would be truly realised. There was little dynamism, few slaloming runs and shots at goal or threaded through balls. There was just calm. In the second half, Riquelme was, in some ways, the ultimate team player. While those around him panicked, Román brought serenity. Time and again, his languid, leisurely style encouraged all around him to relax, to pass and move; he reminded them that the game can be simple. The best form of defence is not attack, but — as Barcelona have emphatically proved in recent times — possession. He just refused to lose the ball, an attitude most aptly illustrated two minutes from the end when he picked possession at left-back and skipped way from Guti, then turned Geremi three times on the touchline before being bundled to the ground to win a free-kick. As he crashed to the turf, Riquelme fell on top of the ball, embracing it in his arms, refusing to let go until the Madrid players had retreated and Basualdo arrived to take the free-kick. The ball was his.
His survival instinct had kicked in: Riquelme only exists when his side have the ball. His reaction to being marginalised may be the only visceral emotion this complex and fragile being brings to the game with which he seeks to define himself. And what made his contribution so poignant is that it wasn't purely the fact that he retained possession, but that what made the difference was that which he holds above all else — the aesthetic. Calm, composed and, and with the elegance of Alessandra Ferri, he elevated his side when they needed it most. "Riquelme played the sort of football which we Argentinians like and which really typifies the South American style," said a gushing Diego Maradona13.
Combined with the resolve of his teammates, his display would be enough. "We played better for the next 85 minutes, but Boca are a good side," said Del Bosque. Battaglia was withdrawn two minutes into stoppage time and replaced by a young Nicolás Burdisso, who slotted into a back five just in time to see Raúl mis-control Geremi's lofted ball into the Boca box. And when Hierro attempted to stop one final counter-attack by hammering the ball back up the field and out for a goal kick, it was all over. Córdoba lofted his goal kick downfield. Casillas attempted to hammer it back and that was that. 'Boca es el campeo del mundo,' they cried. Again and again.
The bench emptied. The celebrations began — both in Tokyo and back home, where half of Argentina plus one leapt for joy14. "Boca said they were the greatest team in Argentina," recalled Fernández Moores. Now they were champions of the world. "That their rival was the legendary Real Madrid made the victory all the more important." It was Bianchi's second world title in six years. "It is hard to compare the two," he told Fifa when asked where this victory stood in relation to Vélez's 1994 defeat of Fabio Capello's Milan. "Both are special for different reasons. But this victory is not only for Boca, but for Argentina. We were able to prove that Argentinian football is the best in the world."
Looking back on the game now, perhaps the most striking image of the night arrives after Palermo hauled himself off the ground following his second. It took what felt like forever for his teammates to arrive. When they finally did, it was Riquelme who was first on the scene, grabbing him by the waist and hoisting him high into the air. Despite all we know and all we've seen since, it's a snapshot many of us would like to hold up as symbolic of their lives together — one representative of their shared achievements, of Boca's odd couple.
Following Palermo's retirement, one reader of La Nación likened them 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." Martín Palermo and Juan Román Riquelme are two polar opposites that came together that night to make Boca champions of the world. "They are very different, both on and off the pitch," said Fernández Moores. "Their coexistence shows that football is a collective sport and that you need the one who can create and the one that will score."
Palermo sealed the victory; Riquelme made it beautiful. They're illustrative of the game's great binaries; of passion and flair. Individually, they provide two contrasting images of football, art and of the world itself. But they need each other. And we need them both. Because together they encompass everything it takes to win a game of football. And perhaps a whole lot more.