You never forget your first love, they say. That’s so true in the case of Juan Sebastián Verón, who always held a special place in his heart for Estudiantes de La Plata.
The Argentine midfielder was born to adore Estudiantes; it was his destiny, his birthright. His father Juan Ramón grew up in the city of La Plata, near Buenos Aires, and he came through the Estudiantes academy before winning the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup double in 1968. Juan Ramón twice returned to Estudiantes after stints away, as he couldn’t help but return to his local club like a boomerang.
For his son, it was exactly the same. Verón started his professional career off in La Plata, although Los Pincharratas were unsuccessfully fighting relegation at the time, rather than competing for continental titles. They went down, but Verón stayed with them and helped them to return to the top flight, making a name for himself with his power and technique. No longer was he Juan Ramón’s son. Now he was known as Juan Sebastián Verón. La Brujita, the Little Witch, was now just as famous as his father La Bruja, the Witch.
Like his father, young Verón left Estudiantes behind to pursue a career in Europe, with a stop-over at Boca Juniors. He passed through Sampdoria, Parma, Lazio, Manchester United, Chelsea and Inter Milan, winning league titles in Rome, Manchester and Milan, in addition to several cup competitions. However, like E.T., Verón was drawn home and he returned to La Plata in 2006, first on loan and then on a permanent transfer. Offers from both Boca Juniors and River Plate were on the table too, but it wasn’t just about returning to Argentina. It was about coming back to Estudiantes and about winning titles with his first love.
It was there that two stars aligned at exactly the right time. Verón returned in that summer of 2006 to be the leader on the pitch and Diego Simeone was brought in to take over the dugout, with club president Eduardo Abadie having phoned the current Atlético Madrid manager within 48 hours of his sacking by Racing Club de Avellaneda, having been impressed with how the recently retired player had turned a Racing side in turmoil into a competent unit.
As United fans will recall, Verón’s immense talent would only shine through in certain systems, so Simeone – who knew Verón well, having played with him on 70 occasions for Lazio and Argentina – built a 4-4-2 formation around the then-31-year-old and around Rodrigo Braña. After a slow start, the team quickly built up enough momentum so as to become unstoppable and they made their case as serious Apertura title challengers with a 7-0 derby day victory over Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata. The win was so important that there still exists graffiti in the neighbourhood celebrating it.
With two weeks of that season to go, it seemed that Simeone and Verón’s Estudiantes side would come up a little short to Boca Juniors, but amazingly the Buenos Aires giant lost in the penultimate weekend, while Estudiantes earned a 1-1 draw with Argentinos Juniors thanks to a goal from La Brujita himself. Then, on the final day Boca lost again and Estudiantes won, meaning they were both level on 44 points and forcing the first ever tie-breaking championship play-off in the Apertura-Clausura era. Despite going behind in the decider, Los Pincharratas fought back to win 2-1 and to claim their first league title since 1983. “[Winning the league with Estudiantes] was incredible, just incredible,” he later said in an interview with former club Manchester United’s media channels. “I’m proud. It’s my city, my people. I am Estudiantes, I can’t just move to another club.” For Verón, it was a dream come true.
The dream wasn’t over, though. It was just getting started. “I want to help Estudiantes to start winning international titles again,” the midfielder said, and soon enough he fulfilled that promise. He suffered several injuries in 2007, but by 2008 he was back to his best and he helped his side to earn a spot in the 2009 Copa Libertadores, a tournament the club had not won since taking three in a row in 1968, 1969 and 1970.
Now coached by Alejandro Sabella, Estudiantes played some excellent football in that tournament and Verón turned back the years to lead his side to glory, playing in 10 of the 12 matches, including all 180 minutes of the two-legged final against Cruzeiro of Brazil, who were beaten 2-1 on aggregate. “I’d trade in everything I’ve previously won for this title,” he said on the eve of the decisive match. 24 hours later, another dream of his had come true.
“Verón is the most important player in the history of Estudiantes,” coach Sabella said in an interview for Jonathon Wilson’s book ‘Angel’s With Dirty Faces’. “What he did by deciding to come back to the club and preach by his example is unique. He grew up here, he has a history in this club before being born, but he made his path from being ‘the son of’ to the point that his father became ‘the father of’.”
Besides a very brief stint with local amateur side Brandsen, Verón played for Estudiantes for the rest of his playing days, up to his retirement in 2014, winning another Apertura league title in 2010 and hanging up his boots with 10 seasons of Estudiantes football to his name. His return to his boyhood club was more than just a couple of late years of service. The midfielder dedicated some of his best football to fans in La Plata.
His work wasn’t finished, however, and upon retirement Verón took over as the president of Estudiantes, having already made some contributions to the club’s administrative work even while still playing. He himself has admitted that he was never a good student back during his school days, but as president he has demonstrated that he possessed intelligence off the pitch as well as on it.
But the pitch was where he made his name and the pitch was where he returned to in 2017 for a one-off appearance, having promised supporters he would perform an encore if they bought enough hospitality tickets at the club’s stadium. To see him back in the red and white of Estudiantes wasn’t strange at all. It’s what he was born for. It’s what he loves to do.