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La Brujita: Service above self

The Argentine Primera División is certainly not the most glamorous in the world; as with pretty much all leagues outside of Europe, clubs in the Primera tend to lose their best players at a very young age to the European leagues, leaving them with bright potential stars, ageing veterans and those considered not good enough to grace the pitches of Europe’s top clubs. However, even if for a short spell, the Primera has featured many of the world’s best players; Maradona is the standout of course, but even in recent years, the likes of Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez have all spent time in then Primera on their way to stardom. Two players in recent years really stand out when discussing the great players in Primera; Juan Sebastián Verón and Juan Román Riquelme both started their careers in Argentina and both returned. However, unlike so many players, Verón and Riquelme didn’t return to Argentina in the twighlight of their careers when no European clubs wanted them any longer, but at 31 and 29 respectively, still in their pomp, still world class and still stars for the Argentinian national side. Both players went on to become icons at their respective clubs, but whereas Riquelme has at time become bigger than the club, Verón has remained a loyal servant of Estudiantes de La Plata.

At Boca Juniors, Riquelme is a legend, king of La Bombonera, but he knows it, and demands the requisite respect; as a languid playmaker, Boca have been forced to shape the team around Riquelme and during the times in which he has found himself a square peg for a round hole, there have been falling outs, often very public ones. Riquelme has made 362 appearances for Boca, scoring 87 goals, during that time he inspired Boca to five league titles, three Copa Libertadores titles, a Sudamericana win, as well as Intercontinental Cup and Copa Argentina. He is a phenomenon, but there is a growing feeling among fans that Riquelme’s performances on the pitch no longer justify his level of influence at the club and that his presence is becoming disruptive. There are parallels with Rogério Ceni of São Paulo. A goalkeeper, Ceni has made over 1100 appearances for the Tricolor and has remarkably scored 112 goals in that time, but with his club struggling of late has come under fire from fans. It may be that both Riquelme and Ceni may soon find themselves being given a great thank you for their service to their clubs and quietly ushered out the door. No such situation is ever likely to arise for Verón at Estudiantes. Whereas Riquelme is one of many icons at Boca, due to the likes of Martin Palermo, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and of cause that man again, Diego Maradona, very few could rival Verón as the greatest ever Estudiantes player of all time, only the brilliant side of the late 1960’s even come close.

For all of their similarities, Verón’s return to Argentina came under significantly different circumstances to that of Riquelme’s. In 2007, Riquelme had a falling out with current Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini and moved on loan to Boca. The move was later made permanent, but not until a move to Athletico Madrid fell through at the last minute; Riquelme’s move home it must be remembered was out of a desire to leave Villareal first and foremost. Also, Riquelme’s time in Europe was largely one of unfulfilled potential, barring a few fantastic seasons at Villareal, Riquelme never really reached the heights expected of him when he left Boca for Barcelona in 2002. Verón is another story. He is often thought of in England as somewhat of a failure, regularly trotted out as an example of a rare piece of poor transfer business by Sir Alex Ferguson, it is often forgotten that he joined United as one of the best midfielders in the world. Verón first moved to Europe in 1996, having briefly starred alongside Maradona at La Bombonera, Verón made the move to Sampdoria, then managed by Sven-Göran Eriksson. His star continued to rise and Verón was brilliant in the 1998 World Cup held in France, providing the most assists of any player and earning a move to Parma. Verón was at Parma for only a year, winning a Coppa Italia and a UEFA Cup in the process before linking up with his former manager and becoming the key man in Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio side. Verón shone in a league that is much more competitive than it is now, with their being four different Scudetto winners during his first spell in Italy. Another Coppa Italia win followed at Lazio for Verón, who also won a UEFA Super Cup, a Supercoppa Italiana and the first of two Serie A titles during his time at the Roman club.

In 2001, after overcoming accusations and controversy over the legitimacy of his Italian passport, Verón joined Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side for a reported fee of £28 million. It is his spell at United that Verón is unfairly best remembered for in England. After originally struggling to settle to English football, Verón was only average in his first season, struggling to establish himself and competing for places with two brilliant players in the form of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. However, Verón was fantastic in his second season for United, especially crucial in their progression from the Champions’ League Group Stage. Verón’s time in England and United was cruelly interrupted by injury and he was defended with surprising venom by Sir Alex Ferguson, who hit back against critics, labelling them “all fucking idiots” and praised Verón as “a fucking great player”. (Taylor, Daniel (7 May 2002). “Ferguson rages at Verón critics”, London: guardian.co.uk, Accessed: 23/09/2013) If he had not been so unfortunately hampered by injury there is little doubt that La Brujita would have continued to perform at Old Trafford, but the newly Abramovich funded Chelsea came in for him and Verón’s Manchester United career was cut prematurely short, a case of bad luck and unfulfilled potential. Verón did win the Premier League in his last season with United, but his time in England as a whole seemed fated to be unsuccessful, as Verón again struggled with injuries at Chelsea, making only 14 appearances for the club.

Verón was deemed surplus to requirements once Mourinho joined Chelsea and was farmed out on loan, to Italy and Inter Milan. Verón revived his career whilst at Internazionale, recapturing the form of his last spell in Italy and going on to win another two Coppa Italia medals and a second Serie A title. Verón was back to his best, but let it be known that he wished to return home; offers flooded in from Argentina’s biggest sides, including River Plate and his former club Boca Juniors, but Verón turned them all down in favour of his boyhood club Estudiantes de La Plata.  After an original loan spell, Verón joined the club permanently following the end of his contract with Chelsea. Verón had played for Estudiantes in his youth, where he won a Primera B Nacional title and earned the nickname La Brujita meaning ‘Little Witch’, after his father, who also played for the club and was known as La Bruja, ‘The Witch’. Verón’s move home was certainly not the end of his success, with his return coinciding with Estudiantes’ most successful period of their history since the dominant side of the late 1960’s of which Verón senior was a part of. Inspired by Verón junior’s midfield displays, Estudiantes won their first league in 23 years in 2006. It was a feat they would achieve again in 2010, but probably Verón’s greatest achievement so far at Estudiantes and possibly his whole career is the 2009 capture of the Copa Libertadores. The Copa Libertadores holds a special place in the history of Estudiantes and the hearts’ of its fans, after they previously dominated the competition. Inspired by Verón senior, Estudiantes captured the trophy three times on the trot between 1968 and 1970, as well as a memorable 1968 triumph against Manchester United in the Intercontinental Cup, in which Verón scored a famous header. The 2009 victory was Estudiantes’ first Copa Libertadores win since Juan Sebastián Verón’s father won the title in 1970 and captaining the side will have been a proud moment for La Brujita.

It is not just on the pitch that Verón has been crucial for Estudiantes; donations made by Verón were crucial in upgrading the club’s training facilities. Verón also played a part in securing a deal with the La Plata council to modernise Estudiantes’ Estadio Único. Injuries have plagued Verón his entire career and after the 2011-12 season, he retired from football with back and ankle injuries, his body finally getting the better of his commitment to football and Estudiantes. However, his retirement did not mean the end of Verón’s association with Estudiantes, with the veteran becoming a sporting director. Verón waived any fiscal reward for his role as a director and maintained his fitness playing for local amateur side Brandsen. When Estudiantes came knocking again this summer, Verón, ever the loyal servant, has put aside fitness concerns to come out of retirement, featuring in five of Estudiantes’ eight league games so far this season, and has donated his year’s salary to the youth side. It is this loyalty that sets Verón apart from so many other footballers, whereas Riquelme arrived at Boca amid acrimony for a large fee, Verón arrived on a free transfer after a successful period in Italy. Whereas Riquelme signed for Boca only after a move to Athletico Madrid fell through, Verón joined Estudiantes `after turning down other, more fiscally rewarding offers from clubs much bigger than the La Plata side. Riquelme has been the controversial king at Boca, Verón has been humble serf at Estudiantes. Riquelme will live long in the memory of Boca fans, but at Estudiantes, both father and son are legends and the name Verón will never be forgotten.

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