This feature first appeared in the March 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now!
Looking over and seeing Juan Sebastian Veron lining up was a frightful sight for opponents. A cultured, 6ft 1in assassin with a goatee, the Argentine midfielder liked to wear his socks low as he prepared for war. Despite his revered style, he wasn’t afraid to scrap if the going got tough.
Today, Veron has decided to present himself even more menacingly for his catch-up with FourFourTwo. Studying his black leather jacket and Peaky Blinders-style flat cap, we’re just thankful there’s no razor blade nearby as the genial 45-year-old chats with us from the other side of the Atlantic. He has been Estudiantes' club president since 2014 and can still run for a third term, but over the past few months the election has been pushed back due to coronavirus.
Before he took office, La Brujita (‘The Little Witch’) captained his boyhood club to Copa Libertadores glory in 2009, following in the footsteps of his father, Juan Ramon Veron, who helped to add three consecutive South American cups to Estudiantes’ cabinet from 1968 to 1970. More than 30 years before his son became the most expensive transfer in English football history, when Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United handed Lazio £28 million in 2001, Juan Ramon already had his own small place in Red Devils history. In 1968, the forward scored in the 1-1 draw that made Estudiantes Intercontinental Cup champions at Old Trafford, after a 1-0 first-leg win over Sir Matt Busby’s men in Buenos Aires.
Sadly, life wasn’t so rosy in Manchester – or London – for Veron Jr, who had thrived in Serie A with his defence-splitting abilities and eye for the spectacular. His talent didn’t translate into Premier League dominance, but nor did that come to define his career. With 73 Argentina caps, including outings at three World Cups, on top of major silverware at home and in Europe with a trio of Italian clubs, Veron’s successes outside of England speak for themselves.
But let’s hear Veron himself tell the story...
You were called ‘The Little Witch’ because your dad was ‘The Witch’, or La Bruja – so where did his nickname come from?
I actually don’t know! There are a number of possible reasons. One of them is the shape of his nose, which looks quite a lot like those in cartoons. [Laughs] The other is his playing style: he was pretty skilful, great at dribbling and able to win matches all by himself. And then I inherited his nickname. He first joined Estudiantes when he was 12, which stretches the relationship between my family and the club to roughly 60 years now. I grew up here, inherited the passion from my dad, and even when my time as president comes to an end, my link with the club will remain.
What did your father tell you about those Intercontinental Cup games against Best, Charlton, Law & Co – and, of course, the key goal he scored at Old Trafford?
Football has this magical way of connecting stories, and it took me to Manchester United, where I was completely honoured to meet those legendary players. It was an incredible experience. The story of that match in 1968 is a fairy tale: a giant against a humble club. Those games definitely helped to shape the DNA of Estudiantes. They were much spicier than today’s matches, too. [Laughs] When United first invited me to Old Trafford, I was shown the main memorabilia of that game in their museum – an Estudiantes pennant with my dad’s image on it. I got quite moved once I saw that.
Sven-Goran Eriksson first brought you to Europe with Sampdoria in 1996, then took you to Lazio in 1999. You must have liked playing for him...?
Yes, he was the best manager I ever had. He gave me the opportunity and supported me through something tough, playing in Italian football at that time. I signed for Sampdoria when I was 21, didn’t have much experience, and also didn’t speak a word of Italian. But Sven always believed in me, made sure I was calm enough to play and kept picking me in the team. Having his trust was crucial for me to settle. I ended my first season among the best foreign players in Italy, and behind only Milan’s Demetrio Albertini as a midfielder in the Serie A best XI.
Roberto Mancini had a fierce reputation at Sampdoria – was he the most demanding team-mate you ever had?
He was definitely up there, for sure. But more than being a captain, he was a role model to look up to. Roberto was demanding not only of the team, but of himself as well. From my point of view, this sort of player is quite rare in football now – you hardly ever find this type of personality in the game today. Over time, he became more than a team-mate to me; he was my older brother. He managed me at Inter later on in my career, too. I’ve told him already and I have no problem repeating it: I owe so much of what I am now to Roberto. Even though I could sometimes get annoyed with him and didn’t understand why he was doing what he did, I put many of the things I learned from him into practice as a captain when I first returned to Estudiantes in 2006, on loan from Chelsea.
How tense was it waiting for the result to come through on the 1999-2000 season’s final day, when Juventus lost and handed the title to Lazio in your first year there?
It was such an unbelievable day. We finished our match against Reggina but had to wait 45 minutes more to see if we would become champions, as Juve were still playing Perugia. We had to control our nerves because it was a very tense day, with the fans waiting inside the stadium and listening to our rivals’ game on the radio. But I think that title was really well deserved. We had started our season by beating Manchester United to win the Super Cup in Monaco, and then we played beautiful football throughout the season. We clinched the title for the first time since 1974, which was something quite remarkable.
I still get a lot of affection from Lazio fans because of what we achieved 20 years ago – honestly, so many messages. I couldn’t ask for much more than that. I don’t believe we celebrated it enough at the time, though: as a professional footballer, it was possibly just a couple of days, before going off on holiday. I already had the next targets in mind. But it meant so much to Lazio and the supporters.
Do you regret joining Manchester United?
No, never. I signed for United because I had a passport issue in Italy [part of a nationwide scandal; Veron was eventually cleared] and thought a change of scenery would be good for my mind. Truth be told, I had a pessimistic view about playing in England, as I imagined that life there would be so different to what I was used to: the Latin lifestyle. But I found an extraordinary club. You could hardly find one as well-organised, with so many people willing to help. Everything that happened to me there changed my mind [about England]. I had two great years in Manchester, winning the Premier League title, and I’m still in touch with several of the guys I met: Dwight Yorke, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Quinton Fortune, Wes Brown, John O’Shea. I met Gary and Phil Neville again at some point, too.
People often forget that you were named Premier League Player of the Month in just your second month at United…
Yes. I know that people expected a lot from me in England – and I did, let me make that clear. Perhaps it was something related to the characteristics of the players; if the club really needed me, in a position where there were decent options already. To make things work for me, the side – which was doing well – had to be changed.
If there was one thing that played against me, I’d say it was the physical conditioning. I was used to the Italian way, which was key for our game, but in England during that time, the physical conditioning was to play games. I wasn’t used to playing without an intense preparation, and it wasn’t ideal for me in the long term. As we played more matches, my performance levels dropped. I had so many up and downs: a few really good games, but other poor ones. In Italy I managed to have a more stable spell, but I know that my time in English football wasn’t the best.
Gary Neville described you as an “amazing player”, but said you might have struggled because the midfield of Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs was so established. How much would you agree with that?
We had Nicky Butt as well. That midfield was magnificent, with guys who had known each other very well for a long period – they played almost by memory. Maybe there just wasn’t room for me to show what I had that was so different. With or without me, that midfield was pretty good!
Which team-mate impressed you most?
It was a pleasure to train and share moments with all of them. But if I had to pick only one, it would be Scholes. He was the full package. He could recover the ball, attack and shoot extremely well, and he was clever – a terrific reader of the game. He had everything.
“He’s a f**king great player... youse are all f**king idiots.” Alex Ferguson came to your defence in 2002 – how did that feel at the time, and how was he with you in general?
He was so demanding with everybody. If you couldn’t keep up, it was clear you would have to look elsewhere. He was always forthright with me, but he had my back from day one, which was very much appreciated. At some points, I wasn’t able to give him everything he expected from me consistently. He got it in a few matches but not in others, and if you want to be a great player, your game has to be stable. I couldn’t deliver it at Old Trafford.
Fergie wrote in his autobiography that you were “alone in the dressing room” and said little beyond, ‘Morning, Mister’. Was that just your personality, or something else?
The language barrier was an issue for me too, but I had very friendly relationships with my team-mates. That said, it was probably an issue in my social life outside the club. That was my fault – I’ve never enjoyed studying in my life! Obviously United provided an English teacher for me, but I took a couple of classes and then gave it up. Maybe at that age I bet everything on the football side of things, and underestimated the value of personality off the pitch. Now, I can see that it would have been worthwhile to engage with some of my team-mates socially as well.
You scored in that crazy 5-3 game against Tottenham to put United ahead. Was that your favourite moment for the club?
If there was something I took from this game against Spurs, it’s that no match is ever lost at Manchester United. They always feel they can come back. Even when we were behind on certain occasions, there was a feeling that little was needed for us to win – even on days like that at White Hart Lane, when they were 3-0 up at half-time. For me, though, the best moment was picking up the Premier League trophy [in 2002-03]. I didn’t play that day at Everton, but it was incredible.
What tempted you to stay in England with Chelsea? Should the side you joined in 2003 have won the Champions League?
It was the start of the club’s transformation, and we reached a stage [the semi-finals in 2003-04, losing to Monaco] that many people didn’t expect us to achieve. I felt that going to Chelsea could have been a good chance for me to get a longer sequence of matches, but I shouldn’t have gone there. I don’t say that because of Chelsea, though. It’s nice to have a club wanting to sign you, excited that you can do something for them. To make an investment like that, the club has to believe in you and trust you.
I actually found it tougher to live in London than Manchester because I’m from La Plata, which is quite a small city. I wish I could have stayed at United longer, as I believe I could have done things differently. If I’d stayed in Manchester, I think I would have had more continuity on the pitch.
Be honest: how concerned were you when Sol Campbell ‘scored’ for England against Argentina at France 98?
That was my first World Cup, and the day we played Japan – that feeling of being there on the pitch, aged 23, listening to my country’s national anthem – was out of this world. But when Campbell scored? I wanted to die! I’m not sure if it was the linesman who raised his flag or the referee who called it, but in those few seconds I thought we were going out – I wanted to disappear.
That match was one of the best ever seen at a World Cup. It was amazing. We were up, England fought back and then we equalised before half-time. When the incident between David Beckham and Cholo [Diego Simeone] happened, I was really close. It was kind of a South American thing to take advantage of a situation in the game; seeing it back now, I’m not sure if it was something to get David sent off. I don’t think so. But it happened, and then we tried to make the most of it. I don’t think it gave us a huge edge in the remaining minutes of the match, though.
How true is it that Argentina players were mocking England’s players on the coach as they left the stadium?
It was no different to what we were used to doing when we won a match. We celebrated as usual, we sang as usual, but we weren’t mocking anyone. It’s not the right thing to do.
You played under Marcelo Bielsa after that tournament – what was he like?
He was always forthright with us. If he had to say something, it would be to your face, not behind your back. Footballers rate this kind of attitude. It’s clear that Marcelo has had a big influence on many Argentine managers who work in Europe nowadays. As I never had any intention of managing, I didn’t pay too much attention to his tactical side. We didn’t really chat about football itself. We spoke a lot, but about other things.
From what I see, he now seems a lot closer to the players in comparison to how he was in charge of Argentina. It’s normal to become more sensitive over the years. When he was younger, he could be a little bit more distant with the squad. We had a good relationship, though. I admire and respect Marcelo a lot.
I sent him a text when Leeds won promotion last season and he messaged back. We also met in the Netherlands not so long ago, and went for a walk. He loves walking and talking. We spoke about the management of a club, the culture of youth academies in Argentina, and he asked how I felt about being a club president. We shared some thoughts on the business side of football; about organisations as a whole, not what happens on the pitch. I have great affection for the man.
Later, it was the great Diego Maradona in charge of you at the 2010 World Cup. How did you find that experience?
Our relationship was good before the World Cup started, and remained good even when he benched me and I didn’t play as much as I could have done at the tournament. Talking about him specifically, for my generation he means everything – what an amazing player. Having him as the coach is different, because he was in charge of more than 20 guys. We knew that when it came to Diego, Argentina and the World Cup, things were quite unique, but we tried to let it go and just concentrate on performing well in the competition.
Do you still have the Rolex watch he gave you as a young player at Boca Juniors? Why did he do that?
Yes I do, but I don’t wear it. Those things, you don’t wear. I keep it as a special gift. The six months we played together for Boca at the beginning of my career in 1996 were really cool, but I actually don’t know why he gave that to me. Affection, perhaps. It was a dream for me to play with him, as I grew up watching him doing what he did. He was the greatest. Very few had the privilege to play alongside him, but I did it right at the start of my career. That experience was the whole package for me as a man and as a player. I’ll always remember his nice gesture towards me.
Having retired in 2014, you returned to the professional game in 2017 because you had promised to do so if fans bought enough stadium boxes. How did you find it after three years out of action?
I miss playing – that pre-match adrenaline, the dressing-room atmosphere. I’ll never be able to experience things like that anywhere else. But I’d decided to play again primarily because of the stadium project, and used it as a way to mobilise the supporters around an important cause for our club. I just played five games [in the Libertadores], though, and that was it. Going back to the pitch at 42 was both an experience and a challenge for me, because people want to see you playing well against 18-year-olds. To be honest, I did a lot better than I expected. The fans still ask me to play again!
As club president, what is the hardest part of your job at Estudiantes?
Making the team perform well. They change a lot in Argentina, as many young talents are sold to European clubs early in their careers. In our case, we rely a lot on selling players, so it’s quite tricky to find that balance in building a stable team. As romantic as we want to be about football, it’s still a business. Compared to being a player, this job is much more about long-term preparation than trying to have an impact on the pitch for 90 minutes every few days. It takes time to see the results that you aim for. That said, my job now has less of an emotional impact on people’s lives compared to what I could do when I had a little bit of control in a game!
Education is of huge importance to us here. I visited Spurs once, and Mauricio Pochettino explained to me that when the club selects 16-year-old kids, they study at the club. We do it differently. We have 300 boys, and half of them – the ones who play only at the club – eat lunch here before their classes. We built this educational system specifically for them. Starting from there, school is mandatory for those who train with us, and that lasts four years. They begin their day at 7am and leave at 7pm, doing everything at the club: training, having meals and studying.
Why have Estudiantes struggled in recent years? What will it take to have the team fighting for titles again?
In 2019, we finally finished the renovation of our ground. That was the priority for a period of time, and my proudest job as Estudiantes president. So much work goes into managing that side of the club in a country as unstable as Argentina. We’ve invested a great deal in our infrastructure and don’t have any debts. Now we are trying to get back to our position as leaders in the championships we compete in. We’re hoping to make this happen in the next few years, although it won’t be an easy thing to achieve.
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