By Jack Tilghman
As football fans, we can often be turned off by the amount of money and greed in the sport, especially with the likes of Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, amongst others, crying their way to more money. The game has become almost as much about agents and investment groups than players and coaches.
However, there is a place about a 45 minute drive from Buenos Aires called La Plata, where there is a player who genuinely plays for the love of the team he supported as a boy. Once considered the best midfielder in the world, Juan Sebastián Veron is perhaps best known for his less than stellar spell at Manchester United, and to many mainstream fans, La Brujita, or the little witch, as fallen off the map since he departed England.
After a brief time at Chelsea, Veron moved on loan to Inter Milan with whom he won two Coppa Italias and a Serie A title in two seasons at the San Siro. It was after being overlooked for the 2006 World Cup in Germany that Veron began to engineer a move back home, with Estudiantes as his main target.
During his time in Europe, Veron had paid to help build the club new training facilities with the intention of returning one day, but it was very surprising that he came when he did.
At 31, Veron was still very much a key player for Inter Milan, but chose to return to his first club, and the club his father played for in the sixties and seventies, for less money and a chance at glory.
Estudiantes was a relatively strong side before Veron arrived, having reached the quarterfinals of the 2006 Copa Libertadores, but it was with Veron and his former national team mate Diego Simeone as coach that pushed the club over the top.
With youngsters such as Pablo Piatti, Marcos Angeleri, Mariano Pavone, and Jose Sosa brought through from the clubs youth ranks to link up with more experienced players like Veron and Rodrigo Braña, Simeone guided Estudiantes to the 2006 Apertura championship that included a 7-0 victory of archrival Gimnasia and a dramatic 2-1 over Boca Juniors in a play-off after the two teams ended the season level on points (Argentina does not use goal difference as a tie-breaker, but rather a final in event of teams finishing level on points).
For many, winning one championship would have been enough. He had given Estudiantes fans their first title in over 20 years, he returned to the Argentina squad and started of five of the six games at the 2007 Copa America, and offers came in for the ex-Lazio man. The most enticing arrived from DC United who were set to give him millions to help build MLS, but Veron decided he was at Estudiantes for life and to build something special.
Although they continued to fight at the top of the table, domestic success eluded Estudiantes, including losing the 2008 Copa Sudamericana Final. It was however in 2009, when Veron finally won the title he so craved: The Copa Libertadores, South American’s version of the Champions League.
His father had one the trophy three times in a row in the late sixties and following his father’s footsteps was a dream come true for Veron.
Unfortunately, Estudiantes could not top Barcelona for the 2009 Club World Cup, falling just a minute short of lifting the cup.
With the feeling of disappointment still with them, Veron and Estudiantes went back to work, only to suffer more heartbreak. Torn between domestic and international competitions, Estudiantes’ squad was stretched too thin, and the club lost both the Copa Libertadores and Clausura 2010 despite being the best team in both tournaments.
More pain followed for Veron, who went to South Africa as an unquestioned starter in Diego Maradona’s squad, but was bizarrely left out of the quarterfinal loss to Germany, with rumors that La Brujita had fallen out with his ex-teammate over tactics.
Upon his return to the World Cup, Veron kept silent over what happened in South Africa, and went to work, helping his team lift the Apertura 2010 title. Even though Veron was not as key a figure as he had been in the Libertadores or 2006 Apertura triumphs, his leadership on and off the field made Veron invaluble to the club, the players, and most importantly the fans.
In an era when money dominates the game, Veron came back to Estudiantes when Inter would have been logical. He then could have gone to the semi-retirment home of DC United to make even more, but Veron stayed at home and has now delivered three trophies, but most importantly, joy to the people of La Plata.