"If you see a witch on a broomstick, that'll be Veron," went the chant popularised by Estudiantes fans in the late 60s. The Veron in question was Juan Ramon, better known as La Bruja (The Witch), a talismanic figure in the Pincharrata team that made headlines around the world with their achievements almost four decades ago.
Veron, a brave striker renowned for his pace and wicked left foot, earned iconic status among the Estudiantes faithful thanks to his penchant for scoring decisive goals, most notably in 1968. First, he netted against Palmeiras in both legs of that year's Copa Libertadores final, when the La Plata outfit won their first continental crown, then followed that with the header at Old Trafford that secured the 1968 Intercontinental Cup against a Manchester United side boasting Bobby Charlton and George Best among others.
Estudiantes would go on to contest three more Libertadores finals, two of them, in 1969 and 1971, against Nacional of Uruguay, the same team that awaits the club in the semi-finals of this year's edition. Just as on those unforgettable nights four decades ago, this latest meeting of the sides will feature a Veron in Albirrojo colours: Juan Sebastian, son of Juan Ramon, who started out at Estudiantes and enjoyed success in Italy and England before returning to La Plata determined to achieve great things with the club.
Defending champions El Pincha entered the 1969 competition at the semi-final stage, where they prevailed against Universidad de Chile with 3-1 wins both home and away. In the final, the Argentinians got the better of their Uruguayan counterparts courtesy of 1-0 win in Montevideo and a 2-0 triumph in La Plata.
"What do I remember most about that match?" says Veron Snr in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com just hours before his son takes part in his semi-final first leg. "Firstly the fact that it was the only [Copa Libertadores] triumph we celebrated in front of our fans, and then that it was the meeting of two very tough, focused sides in a battle to the death over 180 minutes. Just like today, in fact. On that occasion it was our turn to celebrate, just as I hope it will be this year
After making it three Libertadores triumphs in a row in 1970, El Pincha began the defence of their crown at the second group phase in 1971, when they finished ahead of Ecuador's Barcelona and Union Espanola of Chile to reach the final. "We were a changed Estudiantes that year, with different players, a new coach and different club officials," recalled the man who scored 93 times in his 333 appearances for El León. " For all that, we still won 1-0 in La Plata and were close to finishing them off in Montevideo. But then they scored from a set piece and we had to face a play-off in Peru, where they were the better side and beat us 2-0."
Firstly a fan
Ahead of tonight's game against Nacional, La Bruja says he'll be feeling conflicting emotions. "With these two games I'll be suffering more as a fan than a father. Being a former player at the club is something you never forget, and I feel anxious before every Estudiantes game. From the perspective of a father, I'm less worried as Sebastian normally plays well on these types of occasions. From his earliest days he was steeped in the tradition of the Copa Libertadores and what it means to this club, and he'll be equal to the occasion. On top of that he's fiercely determined to win this trophy."
Veron would not be drawn into making a specific prediction though, despite his 22-year playing career and current position on the Estudiantes board. "I wouldn't like to say where the match will be won or lost as there are just too many imponderables in a game of football, not to mention one of 180 minutes. What I will say is that the team look good and very mature, and that I have every confidence in their chances. We can expect two very tight games."
Asked whether any comparisons could be drawn between today's squad and the one he starred in four decades ago, he replies without hesitation: "Yes, the fact the group contains many players who have come through the ranks at this club. That's a big thing, as these individuals feel a real attachment to this jersey and that always gives them an added incentive. Therein lies the origin of the mystique surrounding Estudiantes. We had our chance 40 years ago and were able to seize it. Now it's the turn of Sebastian and his team-mates. Hopefully they'll have both the game and the luck needed to go on and win the title."