A little less that seven years ago, Juan Sebastian Veron was anything but a popular figure in his own country. Argentina had just suffered a shock first-round exit from the FIFA World Cup™ in Korea/Japan and many journalists and fans had fingered Veron as one of the main culprits for their failure. Any public appearances he made were greeted with derision, effectively keeping him off the streets of Buenos Aires for a considerable time. Few footballers would be capable of bouncing back from such adversity, but the Argentinian No4 is clearly one such player.
The sight of La Brujita holding the coveted Copa Libertadores aloft on 15 July not only illustrated Estudiantes' successful season, but confirmed that their 34-year-old captain had won his own personal battle.
"I dedicate this Cup to all the fans, whether they love me or not." The Argentinian's first words after victory, spoken teary-eyed in front of a subdued Mineirao stadium, clearly came from the heart. Since then, he has been lavished with praise by the his own coach, Argentina supremo Diego Maradona, users of FIFA.com and even some Brazilian fans. So could South Africa 2010 mark his triumphant return to the FIFA World Cup?
"I have no doubt that Juan Sebastian Veron is the most important player in the history of this club." These were the memorable words of an elated Alejandro Sabella after the trophy presentation in Belo Horizonte, and who could argue with the Pincharrata coach as La Brujita turned down offers from several of Argentina's top clubs to return to his beloved Estudiantes in 2006. He then set out on a long-term project to lead his club to glory and even had a say in how best to strengthen the squad. Three years later, and the results are plain to see: his team have been national and South American champions and are now preparing to represent CONMEBOL in the FIFA Club World Cup.
In the Copa Libertadores, Veron played 1,304 minutes over 14 games and scored just one goal. His commanding presence and ability to lead his team in difficult situations, as well as his exquisite assists, meant that he was named player of the tournament by the overwhelming majority of our users.
"Sebastian is playing at a phenomenal level. He looked like a kid of 22 with the distance he covered in the final against Cruzeiro. That's the form I want from him, because when playing like that he’s among the top five players in the world," said none other than Diego Maradona. The national coach, who had already called him up for South Africa 2010 qualifiers against Colombia and Ecuador, plans to utilise him again in his side's crucial South American clásico against Brazil next month.
Brazil and South Africa on the horizon?
The tape on his knee, the goatee beard and the shaved head are all part of trademark Veron, not to mention his shots from distance and insatiable desire to turn negativity on its head. This was illustrated after his team’s win over Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte, where Veron ended up winning over the Brazilian supporters.
After the game, hundreds of fans from Cruzeiro’s main rival, Atletico Mineiro, made their way to the Estudiantes hotel in search of an autograph from La Brujita. Subsequently, in a packed home stadium for a match against Sao Paulo in the Brazilian top flight, they flew flags bearing his face and sang songs of gratitude, showing that the affection for Veron, whose former clubs include Chelsea, Inter, Manchester United and Parma, had reached new and unimaginable heights.
That said, those same Brazilians will almost certainly have to watch the Argentinian attempt to engineer their downfall when the two countries meet in their qualifier on 5 September. Or at least according to Maradona, who longs to see him anchoring the midfield alongside Javier Mascherano in that crucial match.
Veron is eager for the challenge and has some words of thanks for Maradona. "It's great to hear comments like that from the national coach and the best player who ever lived, so of course I'm delighted. It gives me renewed hope and a desire to remain with the national team for a long time to come." Words, no doubt, which will delight the whole of Argentina as well.