The Bald and the Beautiful – The Career of Juan Sebastian Verón Comes to an End
On 9 March, 1975, Estudiantes legend Juan Ramón Verón was playing in his club’s 87th clásico against great La Plata city rivals Gimnasia. The zippy winger, nicknamed ‘La Bruja’ (The Witch) for his enormous, hooked olfactory organ, scored a goal in his team’s 4-1 victory. Juan Ramón did not know it at the time, but his wife had earlier given birth to a son. His coach, Carlos Bilardo, did find out but decided to keep the news from his star player so as not to distract him from the task at hand. It was a momentous day for the club, not just for the trouncing of their city rivals, but because the newborn boy (born bald but sans goatee) would one day go on to eclipse his father’s influence at Estudiantes and lead the team back to the summit of South American football.
Juan Sebastián Verón was a one-club man who played for many besides; the sheer scope of his talent making it impossible to remain static. He was a colossal personality on the field and off it; proclaimed by some as fiercely loyal, passionate and commanding but at the same time accused by others of being weak-minded, a traitor, a choker. The son of La Bruja, logically nicknamed ‘La Brujita’ (The Little Witch) would leave his homeland early, go on to dominate Italy, disappoint England and divide opinion whenever he played in national team colours. Just as it seemed his career was winding down, he returned to the team he loved and guided them to national and international championships, something he admits meant more to him than everything else he achieved. On June 24th he will make his last appearance as a professional footballer, marking the end of an era for Estudiantes de La Plata, and for Argentinian football.
Above all else, Verón was a stupendous football player; a midfield metronome who both brutal and graceful. From his deep-lying position he shaped matches like few footballers from his generation could. In defence he was an aggressive tackler and indomitable leader. On the ball he was a shaman, a beguiling sage, a... well, a witch. He was the type of player who made dribbling past an opponent appear effortless. Attempting to dispossess him was a foolhardy enterprise. When the mood took him, he would rumble forward like a tank and fire cannon-blast shots at goal from long range, often with spectacular results. Rather than floating, Verón’s free kicks would sashay towards goal with sinister intent. They consistently left goalkeepers sprawled inelegantly around a post as the ball rolled gently back out of the net. Best of all was his passing. An inspired Verón pass was such a flawless amalgamation of timing, weight, spin and accuracy that it could be describe as simultaneously sublime and ridiculous.
All these elements were present in Verón’s game throughout his career, from his emergence as a large-headed, swarthy teenager from Estudiantes’ academy in the early ‘90s to his final stint at the same club as a large-headed, swarthy, veteran many years later, even if injuries affected his pace and consistency.
La Brujita’s first spell at the La Plata club was a short one. He made his debut as an 18-year-old in the 93/94 season in which Estudiantes was relegated to the second division. He helped the club win promotion the next year but was sold after a handful of games back in the top flight to Boca Juniors, where he spent a solitary season playing alongside Diego Maradona before moving on to Europe in 1996. Verón joined Sven-Goran Eriksson at Sampdoria and began his love affair with Serie A. His unhurried, visionary style was perfectly suited to Italian football and he became one of the most significant midfielders on the peninsular – at the forefront of a golden generation containing the likes of Zidane, Rui Costa and Nedved. He would move on to mega-rich Parma and then to Lazio, signed by Eriksson once more.
“Borombombom, tira la bomba (fire the bomb), Vero Verón," sung Lazio fans as the shiny-domed one enjoyed what was perhaps the peak form of his career to lead the star-studded Laziale to league, cup and UEFA Super Cup success. At Lazio he was the axis of one of the most extraordinary midfields assembled in modern times; in those days Dejan Stankovic, Pavel Nedved, Matias Almeyda, Sergio Conceicao and Diego Simeone could all be seen on stage with the puppet-master Verón.
In 2001, Italian authorities investigated Verón for irregularities with his Italian passport. The player himself was eventually cleared as it was found he was not the one responsible for acquiring the papers, but it may have been a factor in his decision to move to the English league.
Having lorded over Italy, in July 2001 Verón moved to Manchester United in what was, at €42.5m, the most expensive transfer in British football history. It was a transfer ahead of its time. Sir Alex Ferguson saw the value in shoehorning this deliberate, visionary player into a very British midfield – many fans and journalists did not. They accused him of being slow and ill-suited to the Premier League.
“He’s a fucking great player. Youse are fucking idiots,” was Ferguson’s response.
Verón did suffer from various niggling injuries during his two years at United, and despite some fine performances, could never live up to the weight of expectations generated by his massive transfer fee. He moved on to Chelsea in 2003 for €22.5m, representing a considerable loss for the Mancunians. La Brujita’s Chelsea spell was perhaps the nadir of his career – injuries continued to rob him of any rhythm or consistency and he spent little time on the pitch. Both transfers were listed by The Times as among the 50 worst in Premier League history. In 2004 he was loaned to Internazionale, ensuring a final stint in his beloved Serie A. Though he never reached the levels of his Parma/Lazio heyday, Verón was an important squad member in an Inter side that was slowly re-emerging as a superpower.
The sun seemed to be setting on a superb career, but many of the most glorious moments for the player himself were yet to come. Verón’s bond with Estudiantes de La Plata is something rare in modern football. In 2006 he had several options on the table in front of him, including possible moves to River Plate and Boca Juniors. He chose to return to the club where it all began for him, the club he had never forgotten during his European adventures – he had regularly sent back earnings to help Estudiantes buy gym equipment and construct training facilities.
The slower pace of South American football and the stimulus of playing for the club he loved meant the Little Witch was able to revitalise his career. He instantly became the leader and inspiration of Estudiantes on the pitch and an enormous figure at the club behind the scenes. In Veron’s first ever La Plata clásico, Estudiantes obliterated Gimnasia 7-0, a score line that will echo through the respective histories of the two clubs. La Brujita captained the side to the Apertura championship in that first season and ensured they once again became a force in Argentina and the continent. They went on to win the 2009 Copa Libertadores and another Apertura title in 2010. Verón himself was named South American player of the year in both 2008 and 2009. He told Olé on the eve of the Libertadores final, “I would swap all my achievements, everything I won in Europe, everything I’ve won till now, for this title.”
While something of a god at Estudiantes, Verón was often the subject of vehement abuse from the terraces in his homeland. This is partly down to the fact that he was identified as the biggest threat by opposing fans, but also because of his perceived failings for the national team at the 2002 World Cup.
He actually has a highly impressive record with Argentina. He played a total of 73 times for his country and participated in three World Cups; 1998, 2002 and 2010. Yet when expectations were highest, in Japan and South Korea, when Argentina were considered one of the pre-tournament favourites and he was the star midfielder, the team failed and Verón was poor, especially in the crunch group game against England. This led to accusations back home that he was somehow kowtowing to his new employers at Manchester United, or just weak-minded under pressure.
‘Traidor’ (traitor), ‘pecho frio’ (choker) or, worst of all ‘Inglés’ (Englishman) were among the most common terms of abuse hurled at Verón by rival fans in Argentinian stadia. Setting aside club differences however, the average football supporter would acknowledge that when fully fit he was a player on another level to almost anyone else in the league.
An intelligent mind and a strong, uncompromising character mean that the Little Witch is sure to continue to maintain a powerful influence over Argentinian football once he hangs up his boots for the last time. He has been touted as a future Estudiantes club president and should he decide to run for that office, there is no doubt whatsoever that nobody would be able to match his popularity in an election.
He has also been linked with the national team. He has already spoken of his desire to join his former Estudiantes coach Alejandro Sabella in the Argentina setup as some kind of middle man between Sabella and the players who were so recently his contemporaries.
It seems certain that we will be hearing a lot more from Verón in the years to come. Yet that only slightly tempers the sense of regret that never again will we witness this bald, brash and brilliant midfielder dominate a football match the way he did so often throughout his career. Thanks, Brujita, you were pretty bewitching.
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