From Verón and Heinze to Tevez and Di María: the story of Argentine players at Manchester United

From Verón and Heinze to Tevez and Di María: the story of Argentine players at Manchester United

His visage twisted in his customary grimace, Carlos Tevez glowered up at the executive box in the South Stand of Old Trafford which, as usual, hosted the Manchester United board, not least among them chief executive David Gill, and cupped his hands behind his ears. 

Moments earlier, he had scored a sumptuous winner against hated rivals Manchester City, jinking past a hapless Richard Dunne on the edge of the box before teasing the ball past Joe Hart via the post. It was a goal that inched United ever closer to a third consecutive Premier League crown. With Liverpool’s relentless pursuit not showing any signs slowing down, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side could not afford to put a foot wrong. Old Trafford erupted in a cacophony of delight, but Tevez’s own celebration was one borne out of indignation alone. 

This cupping of the ears gesture towards the club directors – later futilely refuted as being aimed towards journalists who had questioned his goalscoring record – would overshadow what was to be a joyous day in Greater Manchester. With three games to go, the 2008/09 championship was nearly in reach, yet the newspaper editors on Monday morning shifted their attention to Carlos Tevez’s outburst of impudence. 

It was a road Manchester United had walked before and it was a road they would stumble down again. In a microcosm, that afternoon demonstrated quite acutely Manchester United’s turbulent relationship with Argentine footballers. It was a curious conundrum. The marriage between one of football’s most successful clubs and one of the football’s most successful nations should have been effortless. 

Before the turn of the century, Manchester United had never deigned to delve into the myriad wonders of the South American transfer market. Throughout much of their history, success had been built on homegrown talent; from the Busby Babes to the Class of ’92, British and Irish players had formed the core of the club’s endeavours.

When, with the advent of the Premier League in 1992, English football started looking abroad for the next stars, Manchester United tended not to stray too far beyond the bounds of Europe. Scandinavia was a profitable market, supplying Sir Alex Ferguson with the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Ronny Johnsen, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Henning Berg, while there were successful forays into France, the Netherlands and Russia, too. 

At the beginning of the 2001/02 season, however, United broke new ground when they secured the signing of Lazio’s bewitching playmaker, Juan Sebastián Verón. Joining the club alongside Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, the £28.1m capture of one of Argentina’s premier talents was seen as a statement of intent by the club. 

Read  |  Juan Sebastián Verón: the Manchester United diaries

Verón’s arrival signalled what was to be a departure from the traditional 4-4-2 that utilised dynamic wingers and tandem, box-to-box central midfielders. In La Brujita, Ferguson was attempting to repeat the club’s elusive 1999 Champions League success by adapting to the exacting conditions of European football where the tactical emphasis was far greater. Manchester United couldn’t simply turn up and outscore top European opposition as they could on the domestic front. They required a little more nous. 

Verón was considered the key that would unlock the door into Europe’s elite establishment. Though Manchester United were a huge club, their record in Europe under Ferguson fluctuated from sublime to underwhelming. In Verón, however, the Red Devils suddenly had a player coveted across the continent for his supreme playmaking ability. This was a man who had forged a tremendous reputation in Serie A, a league which had claimed supremacy in the 1990s, and who threatened to elevate the English champions to a higher plane of operation. 

Despite an excellent start to his career in Manchester, the rest of Verón’s time in England was fraught with inconsistency. While his talent was unquestionable – his vision, his awareness of space, his deft touches and threaded passes – Gary Neville would later suggest that the biggest issue lay with the Argentine’s application or lack thereof. 

Speaking to The Times, Neville opined: “There have been superstars who’ve come to this club and can’t live with it. Verón comes to mind. But as much as Verón was a great lad, and an unbelievable footballer, he didn’t know what it meant to be a Manchester United player. He didn’t know the feeling of the club. He couldn’t handle the pace. The fans didn’t want the little rollovers, the technical outside of the foot passes. They wanted blood and thunder, give it to Peter Schmeichel, throw it out to Giggs, attack, attack, attack.”

In later years, what with the tactical evolution of football and the rise of tiki-taka under Pep Guardiola, there is an argument to be made that Verón was, if anything, merely incongruous with his surroundings in Manchester. He was modernity clashing with antiquity – and antiquity won. 

Nicky Butt, the man who saw his chances of holding down a first-team spot in a midfield that already boasted Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, was ebullient in his praise, but similarly bemoaned what he saw as a lack of willingness to adapt on Verón’s behalf. “Verón was the best player I’ve ever seen, except Cantona. In training, he was like something I’d never seen.” And for Manchester United fans, therein lay the problem; on the pitch, in front of the 75,000 fans who packed Old Trafford each weekend, Verón spent much of the two domestic campaigns bewildered by the frenetic pace of the Premier League.

By his own admission, Verón found English football exacting. “The real change was the physical aspect. I moved from a country with intense pre-season training to another where football matches are the only way they train. In England they play the whole year: Christmas, New Year, non-stop. The first six months I coped with it well. But after December, it was very difficult for me to keep up.”

As such, Manchester United’s first foray into Argentina fizzled out two seasons after it had begun, even though he would claim a Premier League winners’ medal. Verón was summarily sold to Chelsea for half of what United had paid for him. English football was not ready for a luxury midfielder who sacrificed athleticism and desire for technical superiority. 

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Thus, having been burned the first time around, Ferguson was reticent to plunge his hand back into the flames of Argentina a second time. Following Verón’s ill-fated spell in Manchester, it would be another two years before one of La Albiceste jetted into the perennial drizzle of north-west England. This time, it was not in the form of a world-renowned playmaker commanding an exorbitant fee; instead, Manchester United plucked the tenacious yet largely unknown Gabriel Heinze from Paris Saint-Germain for a little over £7m. 

Much like his predecessor, El Gringo arrived on English shores with scant English-speaking ability – and decided not to trouble himself with the laborious task of learning it. In the beginning, his lack of Anglo-linguistic skills seemed to be of little bother. Again, much like Verón, Heinze hit the ground running, scoring a goal on his debut against Bolton and slotting in seamlessly into the Manchester United defence at left-back. 

But if Verón had been copper, pretty to look at that but not worth that much in the end, then Heinze was iron: brittle and unyielding. Not long into his debut season, vociferous chants of “Argentina! Argentina!” began to ring around Old Trafford, usually in direct response to an unmitigated act of violence committed by the Red Devils’ new favourite player. At the end of the campaign, he was named the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year thanks to his typically uncompromising performances, which embodied the spirit of English football’s blood and thunder approach. 

Both Sir Alex Ferguson and his long-time lieutenant Roy Keane were in rare accordance with their perception of the feisty Argentine. The former described the left-back as “ruthless … would kick his own granny” while the latter summed him up succinctly in typical fashion: “A nasty fucker.”

The reception to Verón had been lukewarm, but Heinze became a stalwart part of United’s rebuild. The two of them couldn’t have been more different in their roles on the pitch, but in the wake of success, controversy once more skulked not far behind. Following the entire of the 2005/06 on the side-lines thanks to a catastrophic knee injury, Heinze found his once insurmountable position in the United starting line-up under considerable threat from the recently-signed French full-back, Patrice Evra. Throughout much of the title-winning 2006/07 season, the pair vied for supremacy, but it was ultimately Evra who was victorious, which led to Heinze seeking a move away from Old Trafford.

Over the course of three seasons, Heinze had endeared himself to the United faithful with his committed performances, earning a Premier League medal and the Player of the Year award for his efforts. If the love between club and player had diminished, it was as robust as ever between the fans and the player.

That was until Heinze, in his usual combustible manner, demanded a transfer to loathed rivals Liverpool before the 2007/08 season, a move which saw his reputation at Old Trafford plummet. Not a single player had made the direct switch from Manchester to the red half of Merseyside in over 40 years and, despite his best efforts, Heinze was barred by Ferguson from breaking that run. “He had a mercenary streak,” Ferguson would later admit in his biography. A mercenary streak seemingly so wide that the Argentine even attempted to make a legal issue out of the club blocking his move to Liverpool.

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Though he has crossed paths with Manchester United since his acrimonious departure, Heinze’s reputation remains at a low with the club, even if Keane has since gone on record to profess that he enjoyed playing alongside him. 

As for United, Heinze’s fractious time at Old Trafford ensured that the club had yet to enjoy a smooth relationship with any of their Argentine imports. A trend was beginning to emerge whereby undoubted talent and crucial success was unfortunately turning sour when it came to Manchester United and Argentinians. It was hoped that the signing of Carlos Tevez, at the time one of the most exciting players in world football, would change that. Third time lucky, right?

But it is with a sense of wistfulness that Manchester United fans regard the two seasons Carlos Tevez donned the famous red shirt. Alongside Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, he formed one-third of the venerable triumvirate many consider the finest the club have possessed in half a century. Ranging and ransacking in tandem, this pugnacious trio – a mesmerising blend of beauty and belligerence – carried United to their third Champions League triumph in 2007/08, as well as a league title and victory in the League Cup. Only a semi-final expulsion from the FA Cup scuppered their quest to conquer every competition they entered into. 

Tevez was an enormous contributor to this success. Operating anywhere across the front line, he plundered 19 goals and seven assists in all competitions, including crucial strikes against Chelsea, Liverpool, Lyon and Roma. He dispelled initial fears that he was too similar in style to Rooney, forming a riotous strike partnership which United’s all-time record goalscorer would later go on to describe as his favourite.

Where Ronaldo was the rippling Adonis, a human sculpture of grace and efficiency whose shirt never seemed to be besmirched by sweat or dirt, Rooney and Tevez were unkempt, uncaring, the latter of whom was almost feral in his movements, rollicking across the turf in feverish search of the ball.   

In stark contrast to the scars that marred his neck, there was an untamed beauty about Tevez. A beauty that was cherished by the Manchester United faithful for two glorious seasons but which soured in dramatic fashion when the former darling of Old Trafford eschewed the club’s offer to buy him and jumped ship to “noisy neighbours” Manchester City.

It was a heartbreak that United fans have never truly recovered from. In Tevez’s own words, David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to deal with his agent, Kia Joorabchian, led to a breakdown in relations whereby he felt the club did not appreciate him enough. The remedy to this perceived insouciance was to punish them in the most grievous way he knew how. 

Despite the litany of accomplishments he enjoyed in the red half of the city, a recalcitrant Tevez joined the blue half amidst a flurry of accusations from both camps. What followed was one of the most acrimonious breakdowns in relations in recent years. The “Welcome to Manchester” billboard entered footballing infamy and his irredeemable severance of loyalty was completed when Tevez held aloft a “RIP Fergie” poster during City’s title celebrations the following May.   

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After a spate of Argentines in Ferguson’s autumnal period at Manchester United, the club have been wary in recent years of repeating this cycle of brilliance and bitterness. 

Ángel Di María, the supremely talented spindle of a footballer spent a single season in England with the 20-time champions but met with similar acrimony in the end. After a blistering start, the rigours of playing in a Louis van Gaal system that disposed of out and out wingers overwhelmed him. In a season that is recalled without a shred of fondness for the haplessness of a half-fit Falcao, it is a damning indictment of Di María’s lacklustre impression that it was he who was deemed Manchester United’s worst signing of the campaign. 

After refusing to board a plane bound for the club’s pre-season tour of the USA, he was sold to Paris Saint-Germain at another significant loss ahead of the 2015/16 season. In the years since, the winger has not been shy about making his feelings known about his time in the north-west, emphatically “shushing” the Old Trafford crowd after scoring during PSG’s Champions League first-leg victory in 2018/19, and ensuring his initial promise is vastly overshadowed by his insolence.

Of the outfield players, only Marcos Rojo, the hyper-aggressive full-back United signed from Sporting, has remained at the club for more than three seasons – a record for any Argentine at Manchester United – but has done so without his fair share of controversy. In between delaying his arrival following work permit issues relating to criminal charges to being fined £140,000 for failing to report back during a North America tour pre-season tour, Rojo has proved more of a hindrance than a help before he completed a long-awaited loan move back to Estudiantes. 

Currently, back-up goalkeeper Sergio Romero is the only Argentine import to have enjoyed a relatively uneventful if unspectacular career at Old Trafford, and perhaps therein lies the crux of Manchester United’s relationship with footballers from the two-times World Cup winners.

More so than other footballers, Argentines down the years have forged intrinsic marriages with European clubs when given the adoration they need. Napoli revere Diego Maradona, Fiorentina idolise Gabriel Batistuta and Manchester City are still enraptured with Sergio Agüero. Argentinians don’t do anything by halves. 

In the case of Manchester United, there was always a reason, always an obstacle as to why the club and player didn’t truly, deeply fell in love with one another. Whether it was Verón not understanding what it meant to be a United player or Tevez failing to receive the assurances over his future that he felt he deserved, United and Argentines are like a livewire in water: there will be a searing burst of excitement in the beginning, but in the end, everyone gets hurt. 

Still, given the mesmerising moments of magnificence Argentine players have provided this great club, Manchester United fans will always be prepared to get hurt all over again.  

By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90

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