By Rupert Fryer
He shook hundreds of hands, posed for the thousands of flashes that shot from dozens of cameras, and was lavished with a seemingly endless collection of shields and commemorative plaques. A special shirt was made up, too. Every player wore ‘Bruja Forever’ on their chests and carried the words ‘Thank You Bruja’ on their backs.
It was all too much for Estudiantes captain Juan Sebastián Veron. ‘I have so many memories here, I’ve been crying since yesterday,’ he admitted as he left la cancha for the last time. At 37 years-old, it’s time to call it quits.
His final match is scheduled for next week in Santa Fe, but this was his goodbye. He left the pitch teary-eyed and to a rapturous ovation with two minutes remaining, at which point TV Publica deemed the rest of the match insignificant, skipping the closing stages to conduct another live interview with La Bruja (the witch) on the substitutes’ bench. With nothing to play for, it was all about Veron. At full-time he watched as fireworks filled the sky and a man dressed as a witch swung from the rafters on a broomstick. We Are The Champions played through the speakers… but they were not, and that’s what would have hurt most.
Taking one final look around the house he built, Veron may just have noticed the words running across the advertising hoardings. In big, bold letters it read, ‘La Responsabilidad’. As his teammtes looked on, the responsibility they felt for not providing a swansong befitting the man was palpable. ‘He deserved a better farewell,’ lamented goalkeeper Mariano Andújar.
Because despite the plaques, trophies and endless dedications he received on Saturday night, the one thing Veron truly wanted was nowhere to be found. So as his teammates stood around waiting to say their own goodbyes to someone they all agree is both a friend and a leader that inspired them to seek out greatness, their glistening eyes conveyed a genuine sense of regret. They, after all, were the reason he was here.
Having originally decided to call it quits at the end of the Apertura, Veron’s teammates got together and quite literally begged him to stay. Just one more season, they pleaded. Veron gave them exactly what they asked. He received little in return. Having slumped to a 14th place finish in Apertura 2011, injuries significantly restricting Veron’s own playing time, this year’s campaign collapsed after an encouraging start when Estu were hammered 3-0 at home to Boca. They never recovered.
And yet the year promised so much more. Since the shock resignation of Alejandro Sabella in February of last year, Estudiantes have assembled arguably the finest squad in Argentina, snapping up in the likes of promising Colombian youngsters Duván Zapata and Carlos Carbonero, repatriating Mariano González and Facundo Coria, and reassembling nine of the ten that helped Veron to what he calls the finest achievement in his career: the 2009 Copa Libertadores title.
That Veron holds that victory over Cruzeiro above all else was a sentiment put clearly into context as Canal Siete ran footage of an illustrious career that brought a Premier League winners’ medal, Serie A titles, Copa Italia wins and a UEFA Cup. Juan Sebastián Veron spent the majority of his career in Europe, but his legacy was written in La Plata.
He returned to his hometown club on loan from Chelsea in 2006 after being left out of Argentina’s World Cup squad and immediately inspired the club to its most successful period since his father, Juan Ramón, helped Osvaldo Zubeldía’s famous—and equally infamous—side to three successive Libertadores titles between 1968-70.
In December 2009, Juan Sebastián sat with Juan Ramón in an empty cinema watching footage of their respective Libertadores triumphs. Days later, Veron Jr.’s men came within minutes of seeing off Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona to match Veron Snr.’s 1968 victory over Manchester United and become World champions. A year later he led Estudiantes to the 2010 Apertura league title, the third major trophy since his return, cementing the club’s most successful period in 40 years.
‘I’ll be eternally grateful to Veron,’ said striker Gata Fernandez. ‘Like everybody else here, I will miss the presence of one of the greatest idols in [the club’s] history.’ He may well be the greatest. Regardless, he has undoubtedly become the one held most dearly by supporters. Veron holds an affinity with the club like no other. ‘I was born here,’ he told the microphones on Saturday night. He quite literally was.
His father began bringing him to the club’s training ground as an infant. Upon his return some thirty years later, he found the facilities in such dire need of an upgrade that he promptly donated money from his own pocket in order for the necessary improvements to be made. He then played a major role in negotiations with the local council to secure the club’s sparkling new stadium.
His contribution was rightfully recognised as he was named South American Footballer of the Year in 2008 and 2009, and almost became the third man in history to win the accolade three years running, narrowly losing out to Andrés D’Alessandro the following year.
‘We won’t find another Veron,’ said Andújar. And it was clear on Saturday night that Veron will never find another Estudiantes. His body may finally have caught up with him but, heavily tipped to be a future president of the club, his love affair with the Pincha is far from over.
Rupert Fryer a freelance journalist specialising in South American football and is the co-founder and editor of southamericanfootball.co.uk. He can be followed on Twitter at @Rupert_Fryer