Juan Sebastián Verón: the witch who cast a spell on football

Juan Sebastián Verón: the witch who cast a spell on football

“Is that the Verón?” exclaimed Mick McCarthy, a tone of genuine inquisitiveness and slight incredulity in his voice. Rather bizarrely, the former Republic of Ireland and Wolverhampton Wanderers manager had been selected as a BBC co-commentator for the 2010 World Cup, and clearly his research prior to watching Argentina had been less than exhaustive.

It was the Verón, Juan Sebastián Verón, but McCarthy’s apparent ignorance of his existence was indicative of more than just an underprepared, painfully honest pundit’s lack of knowledge. In fact, it’s likely that a fair proportion of the viewers in the British Isles would have echoed his surprise. That is because, for all of his achievements elsewhere, Verón’s most notorious spell, the one which in many ways has defined the perception of his career, was his two years at Manchester United.

Verón, though, was far from the expensive flop he has often been labelled. An industrious, technically gifted midfielder, he was a player whose football was palpably connected to his emotions. “Verón was a superb footballer with immense stamina,” says Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography. “His intelligence in the game and his engine were first-rate.”

At United, Verón’s undisputed talent was often evident, but his form was inconsistent, his impact sporadic. It was the most high-profile period of his career, undoubtedly – he had moved to Old Trafford for an English record transfer fee – but it was certainly not the most significant. There was far more to the man than just Manchester United.

Juan Ramón Verón was born in La Plata, the capital of Argentina’s Buenos Aires province, in 1944. It would be the city of La Plata that would define the career of the man nicknamed La Bruja – The Witch.

Verón’s footballing career began at hometown club Estudiantes in 1962, where he would spend a successful, instrumental decade, becoming the talisman of Osvaldo Zubeldia’s influential side. This was the team that innovated the use of the offside trap in the Argentine game, the team that embraced a new wave of pragmatism, putting behind them the idealistic La Nuestra approach, and with great physicality, controversially established themselves at the top of the game in the country.

Verón, however, was something altogether different from many of his teammates. “He is for us what Pelé is for Santos,” said Estudiantes coach Zubeldia, a testament to his impact and importance. He was considered comfortably the most technically gifted of a team famed for their aggression and cohesion, for their insatiable desire to win at all costs. Verón, for his influence in the club’s most successful period, emerged as an Estudiantes great, a favourite amongst the fans and a name that would not, it seemed, be overshadowed in the near future.

In 1975, the year Juan Ramón returned to Estudiantes after a three-year spell at Greek side Panathinaikos, Juan Sebastián Verón was born. Of course, no-one would have considered it at the time, but eventually Juan Sebastián would come to replicate his father, then surpass him, at least in terms of his unerring dedication, his apparent obsession with the club that had made him as a player.

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Juan Ramón returned to Estudiantes twice during his career, as had Juan Sebastián – until he came out of retirement to play for them once again at the age of 42. Both began their careers in La Plata and both would finish them there, but Juan Sebastián’s emblematic status did not come until later in his career.

Verón’s patriotism was always evident, the archetypal pibe; Ferguson claimed that he “always had the Argentine flag around him”. His stay in South America in the infancy of his career was brief, however. Verón’s debut for Estudiantes was overshadowed somewhat by the ever-growing fear of relegation, a fear that became reality in the 1993/94 season. At 18, it was a tough baptism for the teenager. Verón would establish himself as a first-team player the following season, helping Estudiantes return to the Primera División at the first attempt.

By this point, Verón had been endearingly nicknamed La Brujita – The Little Witch, after his father – and was very much a midfielder, having switched between striker and defender as a younger player. He was back in the top flight with Estudiantes, but the allure of nearby Boca Juniors in 1996 proved too difficult to turn down. One of Argentina’s most historic clubs at this point still possessed Diego Maradona, in the twilight of his career, and the national icon later recalled the impression a young Verón left. “I knew he was a winner, for his personality and the way he controls the ball,” said Maradona. “You could already tell that he would have a great career.”

Verón was an emerging talent at Boca, though in the one season he played for the Azul y Oro, he could not inspire his side to success in either the Apertura or the Clausura. Boca were some way off an imperious Vélez Sarsfield, and Verón was in demand. He would depart for Italy by the end of the 1995/96 campaign, joining Sampdoria in Serie A. It was in Italy that Verón would make his name on the European stage, though his Argentine journey was far from over.

In many ways, Veron’s time in Italy was symbolised by his relationship with coach Sven-Göran Eriksson. The Swede, who was responsible for bringing Verón to Sampdoria, acted as something of a father figure for the 21-year-old midfielder. He had no grasp of Italian and no experience of life outside of Argentina; he had taken a step that many young Argentines have since taken, particularly those with notable talent, but it would not be easy.

Under Eriksson’s guidance, Verón thrived at Samp. This was not a side expected to challenge at the top, but a sixth-placed finish in 1996/97 was achieved, bringing with it rare European football. Having proved his ability in one of Europe’s top leagues, Verón earned his first international appearance in 1996; he would go on to make 73.

The following season, Eriksson departed for Lazio – Verón would eventually follow – and Sampdoria regressed. The Blucerchiati finished ninth, Verón impressed once again, and in the summer, Parma came calling. It was another step forward for the still young Argentine. Two seasons in Italy had already brought with them visible development, and by the time he had left the country, Verón would claim: “The seven years I spent there defined my career.”

Only one of those seven years would be spent at Parma, but it was a memorable one. Verón joined a squad abundant in talent, the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Faustino Asprilla and Hernán Crespo all prevalent players in a team now often looked at nostalgically. They were considered the best team of the Parma glory years before the club declined into financial ruin and eventual relegation. In 1998/99, though, that was some way off. Verón and co. won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, although finished fourth in Serie A some way behind winners AC Milan.

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There was to be no continuation of a Parma team that possessed such enviable potential; instead, Verón was tempted by the prospect of working again with Eriksson. Lazio signed the playmaker for a fee of £18m in 1999, and their ambition was to be rewarded.

Despite the success that would follow, Verón’s relationship with the Lazio fans was at first tumultuous. His tattoo of Argentine Marxist revolutionary and personal idol Che Guevara led to an element of political animosity with those Lazio supporters of a right-leaning persuasion, but as Verón later put it: “When we won the championship a few of them came into the dressing room and kissed it. From then on things were much better.”

Lazio had done more than simply win the championship. The 1999/2000 Scudetto is regarded as one of the most memorable in the competition’s history, largely because, in winning it, the Roman side had overturned a nine-point deficit on Juventus. Eriksson also led Lazio to the Coppa Italia, securing a league and cup double, thanks in no small part down to the brilliance of Verón. His eight league goals, a career-best, had helped Lazio to only their second Serie A title, while his orchestral displays in midfield alongside combative compatriot Diego Simeone had proved pivotal.

It was perhaps Verón at his very best, certainly in Europe, but when Eriksson left to take control of the England national team midway through the 2000/01 campaign, things took a turn for the worse. Verón found himself embroiled in a fake passport scandal that had rocked Italian football. A number of players, mostly from South America, were accused of obtaining Italian passports using fake documents to gain entry into the country. Verón was eventually cleared, though Milan goalkeeper Dida and Inter forward Álvaro Recoba were handed year-long bans, while the clubs involved were heavily fined.

The events seemed to derail Verón’s focus on football; he made just 22 league appearances as Lazio finished third. Nevertheless, he had done more than enough to establish himself as one of Europe’s most in-demand players. Internationally, he was a regular for Argentina, though he was handed much of the blame when Marcelo Bielsa’s national team failed to qualify from their 2002 World Cup group that included England, Sweden and Nigeria. Still, he was typically sanguine when discussing the criticism. “I’ve learned to be objective about praise and criticism,” he said. “People can say what they want, I just don’t take any notice.”

In the summer of 2001, Manchester United sealed perhaps one of the most highly anticipated transfers in football history to date. Verón arrived for an astronomical £28m, a figure of elegant power, industrious but beguiling, a symbol of the financial might now available in the Premier League. There was excitement, and there was expectation.

“He’s a fucking great player,” screamed an incensed Sir Alex Ferguson to the room of stunned journalists. “And you’re all fucking idiots.” The vociferous Scotsman was defending Verón after his first season with United, one which had been ultimately underwhelming, and as a result attracted a wave of seemingly intransigent criticism. In reality, a more balanced view could have been taken of Verón’s tempestuous 2001/02 campaign. He had been hampered by an Achilles injury towards the end of the season, but he had made an impressive start. Midfield teammate Nicky Butt said that Veron was so “unbelievable, I thought I’d never play for Untied again”.

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A promising beginning tailed off, and Ferguson later revealed in his autobiography that it was difficult to find the ideal place for the Argentine, particularly with regular switches between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 systems. “We couldn’t find a position in which to play him,” he said. “We found it increasingly hard to fit him, Scholes and Keane into a midfield.” And when he did play, “he was a free bird, flying everywhere.”

Ferguson points to difficulties in communication; it seems that England was not entirely the right fit for Verón at that stage of his career. By his own admittance, he struggled with the tangible difference in cultures, as well as the intensity of training and the demands of a hectic winter period.

His second season at United – 2002/03 – in which the club overcame the challenge of Arsenal to win the Premier League title, was an improvement, though his domestic performances were inconsistent throughout his time in Manchester. It was in the Champions League that his best displays came, the slower pace allowing for a player of his talent to truly express himself. Indeed, it seemed that the pace of the game was instrumental in his performances throughout his career, particularly when considering his success in Italy, a nation of more mannered, considered football at that time.

It appeared that Verón’s issues at United were more systemic than anything else, his arrival coming at a time when the club already boasted a number of gifted midfield players. Then there was the fevered anticipation of his arrival, stoked by BBC journalist Stefano Bozzi, who waxed lyrical of his talents. “If Zinedine Zidane is worth the £43.2m Real Madrid are about to shell out, then Manchester United’s purchase of Verón at £28.1m is a bargain,” he wrote. “While Zidane is an exquisite talent, Verón provides more by way of his all-round game. Not only will the addition of Verón raise standards at Old Trafford, it will also shatter morale at their major rivals.”

It didn’t quite go as well as Bozzi’s words had suggested it might, but there have since been far less effective signings for far more money. Verón’s problem was that he was one of the first to demand such an extensive fee and not live up to heightened expectations. He left United for Chelsea, supposedly at the recommendation of former coach Eriksson, in 2003, and expressed some regrets of his time at Old Trafford. “If I had one frustration it was that I had highs and lows every season,” he said. “I was never at a high level throughout. The system varied but I should have stayed at United and not left.”

Verón joined Chelsea in the infancy of Roman Abramovich’s reign for £15m, but his sole season with the club was terminally hampered by injuries; he made just 15 appearances before spending two considerably more fruitful seasons back in Italy with Inter, where he won a league title and another Coppa Italia. In 2006, at the age of 31, Verón’s dizzying European journey was over.

It was time to return to Argentina, to La Plata, and to the welcoming arms of Estudiantes. “I want to help Estudiantes get back to winning international titles,” said Verón on his return, originally on loan, in 2006. It seemed ambitious, but Verón’s dogged self-belief and relentless appetite for what would be an inherently romantic success could not be quelled.

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Carlos Bilardo had laid the foundations at the club before leaving in 2004, promoting a number of talented youth players into the first-team squad and initiating a period of notable improvement. An inexperienced Diego Simeone replaced Bilardo, and a team with all the typically organised traits of the future Argentine coach won the 2006/07 Apertura.

Verón’s return had been met with Estudiantes’ first title in 23 years; they conceded just 12 goals in 19 games, but it was only the start of a spell that would give Verón undisputed legendary status.

Alejandro Sabella, a former Estudiantes player, was appointed as coach in 2009 after Simeone departed for River Plate, and it was in that year that the club would achieve perhaps the most remarkable success in their history. The golden era of the late-1960s and early-70s had brought three successive Copa Libertadores, but since then the club had not come close. The successes in the time of Juan Ramón Verón seemed unlikely to be replicated at all, but in 2009 it would be, and it would be instigated by La Bruja himself.

Estudiantes, hard-working and compact, found their way into the final of South America’s most reputable competition, where they would meet Brazilian side Cruzeiro. The first leg, in La Plata, was goalless, and Estudiantes fell behind in the return. Trailing in the second half, Gastón Fernández poked in an equaliser, before an expertly placed Verón corner was headed home by Mauro Boselli for the winner. Verón’s impact, his delight, could not be understated. “Incredible,” he would later recall. “Just incredible.” Perhaps even more incredible was that he had been named player of the tournament at the age of 34.

Verón continued with Estudiantes until 2014, winning the Apertura again in 2010, before he retired and became the club’s president. The two seemed inseparable. His former coach Sabella was outspoken in his admiration for Verón, quoted in Jonathon Wilson’s Angel’s With Dirty Faces: “Verón is the most important player in the history of Estudiantes,” he said. “What he did by deciding to come back to the club and preach by his example is unique. He grew up here, he has a history in this club before being born, but he made his path from being ‘the son of’ to the point that his father became ‘the father of’. There are only a few players like him in the game, but I must acknowledge his soul.”

There was and is nothing but praise for Verón at Estudiantes, a far cry from the often divisive opinions voiced during his more illustrious, but clearly less rewarding escapades in the Premier League. The fact that he still featured for the club in his 40s, and is indeed now the president, is indicative of his loyalty, and of the influence of his father. “I’m proud,” Verón says. “It’s my city, my people; I am Estudiantes. I can’t just move to another club.”

Verón’s story is a rare one in modern football, even in Argentina. The short-termism and obsession with success and money leave little opportunity or desire for a player to place great importance on loyalty to a hometown team. Verón, in that sense, is, refreshingly and ardently, a non-conformist.

Perhaps the final word is best left with his father, who always stressed the importance of Estudiantes to his son: “My son came back in 2006 with a simple but seemingly impossible objective – to help the team win an international tournament again. He had several offers but chose to play for his club, the one he never forgot. The dream that every fan has, he fulfilled it.”

By Callum Rice-Coates @Callumrc96

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