Since making his return to Argentinian football in 2006 Juan Sebastian Veron has enjoyed nothing but success. Welcomed back into the fold at his beloved Estudiantes, La Brujita (The Little Witch) was a guiding light in last season’s Copa Libertadores triumph, the fourth in the club’s history. That achievement, which came in a competition that put El Pincha on the world footballing map some 40 years ago, was capped by a dramatic comeback in the second-leg of the final against Cruzeiro at a hostile Estadio Minerao.
Five months on from that heady night the inspirational midfielder is now facing an even greater challenge. With the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009 just around the corner, Veron has the chance to emulate his father Juan Ramon, La Bruja, an instrumental figure in Estudiantes’ 1968 Intercontinental Cup win over Manchester United. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Veron Jr gives his views on the upcoming tournament in Abu Dhabi and El Pincha’s chances of success.
FIFA.com: Juan Sebastian, are you feeling nervous about the tournament?
Juan Sebastian Veron: No, I’m not nervous. Everything is over so quickly in football that I’m just trying savour every moment as much as I can. You never know if you’ll have the chance to experience them again. I have to say I felt a little different before the big games in the Libertadores. It was a longer competition with more matches. I was nervous then, but not now.
What does this competition mean to the club?
At club level it’s the best that football has to offer and there aren’t many Argentinian teams that have had an opportunity like this. In fact only Boca have played in a Club World Cup, and it’s an honour for Estudiantes to be taking part.
And what does it mean for you personally?
Well it’s an enriching experience for all of us, for the older players, who will be leading the way, and the younger ones, who’ll be taking up the baton in the future. You have to make them aware of what it means to be there, how fantastic it is. It’s also important that nobody sits back and says 'I’ve made it now'. With a tournament like this you have to want to come back and experience it again.
Estudiantes were in contention in the Argentinian Apertura until some of their games were brought forward for the FIFA Club World Cup. Did the tournament prove a distraction for you?
No. There was a lot of talk about us having our minds elsewhere but I don’t see it that way. The preparations are the way they are and you feel the tension from the fans every day, but we didn’t lose our way because of that. Our form just dropped off and we didn’t get much luck.
How do you see the team, then?
You want to win every competition you play in, but after winning the Libertadores our objective was to put in a strong challenge for the Apertura and show that the Copa wasn’t a flash in the pan. We did that and that’s why I think we’re in good shape and will get even better.
How much do you know about your potential semi-final opponents?
Not much. Sometimes it’s better to play a team you know well because there are less surprises that way. We have to prepare the same though, no matter who we play. You can’t afford to underestimate anyone these days, especially in a two-match tournament.
Estudiantes are usually favourites when they play. Do you think you are ready to match a team like Barcelona?
It all depends on how the game goes. That’s something you feel as the minutes go by. We always aim to play in the opposition’s half and control the game. But the opposition can play too, and Barcelona even more so.
One of your team-mates said that to stop Lionel Messi you have to tie him up.
It’s not just him it’s all of them. We’ll need a big net, I think (laughs)!
Do you think your less experienced players will be overawed at the prospect of playing against so many stars?
We’ve all been through that but you can’t let somebody beat you just because you admire them, especially with so much at stake.
You have experienced a kind of redemption in recent times in Argentina. You are now rated one of the all-time greats and the criticism you received after Korea/Japan 2002 seems to have been forgotten. Do you feel you have had your revenge?
No, I don’t see it that way. I never listened to criticism in the past and I’m not going to let things go to my head now. I’ve gained in experience over the years and I saw both sides of the coin before and after the 2002 World Cup. That’s why I don’t believe this kind of stuff.
Even so, did you ever imagine you would get this kind of praise after coming back from Europe?
No. All I wanted to do was help Estudiantes and enjoy my time at the club. Then, when I realised I could achieve certain objectives I went for them. All of a sudden the team just clicked and that helped me. There’s a big difference between taking a back-seat role in Argentina and coming and winning the league, playing an international final one year and winning the Libertadores the next. A lot of different factors just came together and the rest followed on from that.
Moving on to the national team, are Argentina bigger favourites now than they were in the two other FIFA World Cup™ finals you appeared in?
No. We were in good shape going into 1998 but in 2002 everyone said we were favourites. There are reasons for people to get excited now but I don’t think we’re favourites in the strictest sense of the word. That will depend on the make-up of the team and how we are going into the finals. There’s still time to talk and work, which is the most important thing.
Are Estudiantes favourites to win the FIFA Club World Cup then? (Pauses) That’s what you aim for, but it won’t be easy.
Let’s put it a different way. Do you dream of becoming champions in Abu Dhabi?
I don’t, but that’s just the way I am. Subconsciously you sometimes make yourself believe that that you’re fantastic, which is really important of course. We’re going with that dream in our minds but in the end football will decide everything.