There are some players who you keep rooting for long after they leave your club. In some cases, that’s because they provided stellar performances for you, year in, year out; in other cases, because they weren’t the most gifted but still gave you every effort they had. And then there is the final group: those for whom it didn’t quite work out. And that’s how I will always feel about Juan Sebastian Veron.
Veron arrived at Manchester United as some form of alien creature. The club had not seen a footballer like that in recent memory. Yes, they had Paul Scholes, who was evolving into one of the game’s greats; but Veron had a different sensibility. There was a contradiction about him, a toughness and a fragility. Watching him in Serie A, for Sampdoria, Parma then Lazio, I saw him go about his work in a manner I didn’t fully understand. He didn’t spend more than two seasons at any of those clubs, yet he instantly became their point of reference, their centre of creative gravity. And what was he? On first sight, he appeared to be a central midfielder – maybe it was the gait, the gritted teeth, the socks rolled low. On second inspection, though, he was a superbly elusive number ten: when he played alongside Hernan Crespo at Parma for their partnership was immediately devastating. The two of them would be bought by Lazio just a year later, leading the Rome side to only their second Serie A title, or scudetto.
So why didn’t it work for Veron at Old Trafford? Well, that’s partly because of the style of the league. It was notable, after all, that many of Veron’s best games seemed to come in the UEFA Champions League, or in the very tightest of matches at the top of the Premier League – that is to say, in contests where both sides let each other play their own game. It is also notable that Veron was most often supreme when accompanied by Phil Neville in central midfield – a team-mate who, like Matias Almeyda at Lazio, took immaculate care of all defensive duties alongside him. At United, though, Veron was largely left to do his own dirty work in the middle of the pitch, and that was a recipe for dysfunction if not chaos.
Watching him in Serie A, for Sampdoria, Parma then Lazio, I saw him go about his work in a manner I didn’t fully understand. He didn’t spend more than two seasons at any of those clubs, yet he instantly became their point of reference, their centre of creative gravity.
This was a shame, since Veron at his peak was truly majestic. He played passes with the same accuracy and extravagance we now see from Paul Pogba, and at the time of his arrival could briefly rival Zinedine Zidane as the world’s elite playmaker. He would of course win a title with United, in 2003, which for him was probably a form of both catharsis and redemption. I remember reading one interview where he talked openly about his anguish over his form at Old Trafford, and how he felt he was letting fans down. It was from then that I truly warmed to him, and whose progress I would continue to follow with interest.
I am glad that I did so, since it has allowed me to make much better sense of his career, and to see him find the happiness that his dedication deserved. United was no final destination for Veron; it was merely one more stop on his footballing journey, which started and ended at the same place. If we are going to draw any kind of analogy to figures of myth, then Veron was Odysseus; he set out from his home of Argentina to take part in great conflicts further afield, and it would be many years before, weary of his travels, he would return gloriously to his motherland. Veron’s story is especially poetic; his father had led Estudiantes to the Copa Libertadores in 1968, and Veron would repeat that feat in 2009, being named the tournament’s best player. Given how much that trophy evidently meant to him – he said before the final that he would trade every other medal he had won in order to claim it – there was a sense in which it was the logical culmination of his career.
Veron went through ten clubs in twenty-three years; and still, remarkably, playing at 42 years of age, back where it all began. He must be the most gifted player-chairman of all time, and the most gifted journeyman too. It’s not often that footballers get such happy endings – and so, the next time I get a chance, I should look in the vague direction of his hometown of La Plata, and raise a bottle of Berlin’s finest Club Mate.