If there is one thing Argentina does better than producing exceptional football talent, it is later paying those same stars tribute in their twilight years. A fact never better illustrated than in the past week, as two of the very best to come off the nation's famed assembly line in recent decades enjoyed lavish homages within the space of a single weekend – both, moreover, honoured with the presence of a very special guest.
It is a mark of Lionel Messi's astounding longevity that all the way back in 2006 the Albiceleste idol was already sharing a World Cup stage with Juan Román Riquelme and Maxi Rodríguez. Sixteen years later, of course, he would go further than each man and get his hands on that much-coveted trophy, amid the glory and euphoria of Qatar and those now-famous chaotic scenes back home. Still, Leo has never been one to forget his roots, and just days after slogging over to Asia with the current national team he was back to play not one, but two 'farewell' matches in as many days in a touching nod to players whose influence loomed large on him growing up.
As is customary, the actual events on the field in Newell's Old Boys' Estadio Marcelo Bielsa and later the Bombonera were largely academic. Heading up an Argentina XI which also featured the likes of coach Lionel Scaloni, Messi's boyhood idol and Scaloni's assistant Pablo Aimar and former wonderkid Javier Saviola, ‘La Pulga’ played out two thoroughly entertaining, goal-filled games at half pace which left the capacity crowds ecstatic. Not that there was any doubt over whose evening it was, mind. The Bombonera faithful made that much clear with a chant aimed in the Argentina captain's direction: “Messi, Messi, Messi, you're going to have to forgive me, but here in Boca, Román is the greatest.”
For the hero of the hour himself the gala must have come as sweet vindication, not to mention something of a relief. The best part of a decade has come and gone since Riquelme last pulled on a Boca shirt in an official game, prior to his return to (successfully) deliver Argentinos Juniors promotion back in 2014, an emotional but somewhat unsatisfying swansong nonetheless. Then, years of bad blood between the mercurial ex-playmaker and the Boca administration headed by Daniel Angelici made any notion of a farewell match impossible; to make it happen Román was obliged literally to pick up the gauntlet and kick Angelici's cronies out of the club himself, in the 2019 elections.
Matters have not always been straightforward for the Xeneize vice-president or his club since then, but there is no doubt that he is revered at the Bombonera in a way unimaginable even to superstars like Messi or the great Diego Maradona; and that the same adulation should see him returned to his charge in the latest elections set for the end of the year.
Román and Maxi served up two unforgettable shows, then, marked not just by the stars on display but also a collegiate atmosphere rarely seen among two of Argentina's most fevered fanbases, with Rosario Central-linked Ángel Di María enjoying a rousing reception at the home of the club's arch-enemies and even River idols like Aimar and Saviola receiving tepid applause and just a few whistles in the Bombonera – about as good as it gets, really.
You might feel rather down at having missed it, but remember, there is always someone a little worse off. Last weekend that person found himself in Philadelphia, where the cameras at Inter Miami's clash with hosts Union zoomed in on a fan whose paper sign proudly boasted of having “travelled 1,200 miles to see the GOAT.” The only snag, of course, was that Messi was several thousand miles further away in Rosario, leading said fan to angrily discard his sign and head for the exit. Inter too were left to rue their new star's absence in a bruising 4-1 defeat that leaves them rock-bottom in MLS. Leo's debut may be some way off yet, but it cannot come soon enough for his struggling new employers and their fans.