Seba Verón: King of the Americas
Footballers produced by South America come in all shapes and sizes, but too often they're viewed in one way: as up-and-coming stars of the future. So it's nice that from time to time the continent recognises a player at the other end of his career.
The final results of the 2008 South American Footballer of the Year award (or 'King of The Americas', to literally translate its Spanish name) gave a hearty slap on the back to one of the elder statesmen of the game. In second - despite what was by his own high standards a rather ordinary twelve months - was Juan Román Riquelme of newly-crowned Argentine champions Boca Juniors. Edging him out by only three votes for first place, though, was a fellow Argentine who didn't win a single team trophy during 2008: 33-year-old Juan Sebastián Verón.
Verón joins quite a pantheon. Former winners of the journalists' vote organised by Uruguayan newspaper El País include Carlos Valderrama, Enzo Francescoli, Cafu and Riquelme himself. Between 1971 and 1985, when Venezuelan paper El Mundo organised the award, it was won by the likes of Teófilo Cubillas, Pelé, and of course a countryman of Verón; Diego Maradona. Earlier this century, Carlos Tevez became only the second player to win it three years running (twice with Boca Juniors and once with Corinthians).
Now, I can guess what British readers will be thinking at this point. So I'll clarify: yes, I am speaking of the same Seba Verón who played (for want of a better word) for Manchester United and Chelsea for three injury-disrupted seasons between 2001 and 2004. Those who paid attention to Verón's time in Italy, and who've watched him since returning to Estudiantes in 2006, will be less shocked.
Although 2008 was the year Nicolas Anelka overtook Verón's previous world record for a cumulative transfer fee, 'La Brujita' ('The Little Witch') as he's known in Argentina (dad Juan Ramón Verón, also an Estudiantes midfielder, was named 'The Witch'), was a central figure as Estudiantes challenged for the Clausura in the domestic league during the first half of the year, finishing joint second just four points behind River Plate. He was also key in their run to the final of the Copa Sudamericana in the second half of the year. That run included a 30 yard piledriver against Botafogo in the quarter-finals, which came just a few days after he'd belted one in off the crossbar against Gimnasia de Jujuy in the league.
The fact that Verón claimed the award for a year in which his team failed to win a trophy only reinforces the quality of his individual performances. Form aside, he's been captain and the focal point of a team who began the year trying to acclimatise to the loss of popular manager Diego Simeone. Twelve months before leaving for River Plate, Simeone had won his first title as manager with Estudiantes - the club's fourth professional Argentine title.
His departure for River in December 2007 upset the players, and his replacement Roberto Sensini, whilst warmly welcomed, was returning from several years in Italy just one year into a managerial career which had only previously involved Udinese, whom he briefly managed after ending his playing career there in 2006. Verón was key to this inexperienced manager mounting an instant title challenge.
It wasn't all plain sailing though. After a slow start in the Apertura, Sensini quit in September and Verón was criticised by some in both the press and the stands for helping to force the boss out. He told journalists: ''I came back to Estudiantes because I wanted to come, not because I wanted a complicated life - I don't want to carry on elsewhere. Perhaps when my contract finishes [in June 2009], I'll leave football altogether.''
Of course, it looks rosier now. Having attracted reported interest from one or two of his former Italian employers, and picked up an award which he told El País, ''comes at a very special time in my life, '' he may just decide to stay with Estudiantes beyond the current season.
The club don't quite play the most attractive football in Argentina - that distinction should go to Lanús at present, for my money - but they do have a tidy style and one of the best balances between defence and attack. The switch between those two is dictated, in no small part, by Verón. He plays further back than a traditional playmaker, but one facet of his game that was never questioned - even in England - was his passing.
Even at 33 (he's the oldest recipient of this award since Romario won it in 2000) his distribution remains razor sharp, and his form led to call-ups to the Argentina squad for World Cup qualifiers under former national boss Alfio Basile. Diego Maradona is a known admirer, so if Verón does play on for much longer, that part of the renaissance may not be over.
It's also a story made all the sweeter by the fact that Verón has done a lot for his club, even during his successful years abroad. Throughout his career he's sent significant chunks of money back to La Plata to help upgrade club facilities, and when he re-joined them in 2006 (initially on loan from Chelsea, who still owned his registration having loaned him to Internazionale previously) he took a huge pay cut and turned down more lucrative offers from both Boca Juniors and River Plate.
It's hard to escape the suspicion that, in a different economic era, Verón would have been a one-club man. Youngsters coming through the ranks make no secret of their admiration and may even get the chance to see their idol at the 2010 World Cup. Watch this space.