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Dec 9, 2009

Anti-futbol confined to history students

As the Club World Cup moves to new territory in the United Arab Emirates for 2009, a fresh chapter in the event's history is written. Somewhat fitting, then, that one of the clubs involved has some real history with the event itself.

Few countries have contributed as much (or as controversially) to the Club World Cup - or rather to its predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup - as Argentina. And no other Argentine club have contributed as infamously, or with as much subsequent influence on the tournament's development, as Club Estudiantes de La Plata.

Indeed, one Estudiantes player has a chance in the UAE to create perhaps the competition's first family dynasty. Juan Sebastián Verón's father, Juan Ramón, was a key member of Estudiantes' Copa Libertadores-winning teams of the late 1960s and 1970, and goalscorer in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford when Estudiantes took on and beat Manchester United in 1968. He's frequently been called the greatest Estudiantes player ever - but in the wake of the side's fourth Copa Libertadores win earlier this year, his son was given that mantle by the current team's manager. Alejandro Sabella told reporters in the wake of the side's Copa win in July: "[Seba] Verón is the pre-eminent player in the history of this club."

Verón dominates Estudiantes off the pitch as well as on. The club's institutional strategy appears at times to have been shaped by his preferences before now, and there are very strong rumours that he harbours ambitions to one day become president. While earning big money in Europe with Manchester United, Chelsea, Sampdoria, Parma, Lazio and Internazionale, he sent contributions back home from his own wages to keep the club and their academy ticking over.

And yet this year's Club World Cup will be far from a case of Seba Verón against the world.

Estudiantes might be forgiven for feeling they have something to prove, too - perhaps more than most teams because, as readers of a certain age will recall, this isn't exactly a club that once wowed the world with breathtaking finishing and flowing football. Estudiantes followed in the tradition started by Racing Club (who in the 1967 competition beat Celtic in a play-off to become the first Argentine side at any level to be crowned world champions), but went to even further extremes: they didn't just swear, kick and spit.

Estudiantes' style of play, back in the late 1960s, came in stark contrast to the aesthetic-obsessed style of the Argentine league of decades previous, expressed in the almost mythical phrase La Nuestra (our style). Estudiantes' style was anti-fútbol, and that shouldn't need a translation. It was often incendiary. If an opposing player's daughter had just been taken gravely ill, Estudiantes would know about it and would use the knowledge to wind him up on the pitch. Today's scrapes down the backs of legs or sly tugs on shirts at corners would have been laughed at - elbows were used and even pins when the referee wasn't looking. With few, if any, TV cameras present, no holds were barred.

The team grew up together - the Argentine FA's suspension of relegation for three years in the early 1960s in the top flight meant that Estudiantes, whose older players were struggling, could put faith in their youngsters without pressure - and the results were phenomenal: a first domestic professional title in 1967 was followed by three consecutive Copa Libertadores (a first in the competition) and that 1968 Intercontinental Cup. They would lose in 1969 to Milan and 1970 to Feyenoord, with three players ending up in jail following the home leg against Milan, such was the scale of on-pitch violence.

Their style of play left its mark on the tournament as later European champions refused to take part in the competition. Ajax (twice), Bayern Munich (twice), Liverpool and Nottingham Forest all declined their invitations during the 1970s, with the negative attitude of their prospective opponents most frequently blamed - at least by European football historians. The Intercontinental Cup - and the Club World Cup that's inherited its legacy - might be a very different competition today, to Europeans if no-one else, had it not been for Estudiantes' anti-fútbol.

So to say that Estudiantes have previous with this competition is putting it mildly. One could even suggest that the competition has a score to settle with Estudiantes. Yet part of the reason Verón junior is so fêted by the club's fans is that this Estudiantes team - while perfectly capable of looking after themselves - won the 2009 Copa Libertadores by playing football, and that's what they'll want to prove in the Gulf. They've been quiet in the second half of 2009 - having completed their fixtures two rounds before everyone else they're likely to finish mid-table in the Torneo Apertura - but have been guarding Verón from too much playing time, and will be looking to step things up now.

Boca Juniors legend Martín Palermo's desire to play for his boyhood club on loan in the UAE hasn't come to pass, but the club are hopeful of securing another alumnus: their attempt to bring José Sosa back from Bayern Munich on loan was rejected by FIFA, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport will rule next Monday on whether the attacking midfielder should be allowed to join the team for the competition.

If he doesn't join, Estudiantes will have plenty of options going forward from midfield anyway. With Verón pulling the strings, they'll have Enzo Pérez and Leandro Benítez or the Uruguayan Juan Manuel Salgueiro attacking from the wings. Their problem could be lack of actual firepower: ancient goal machine José Luis Calderón retired weeks ago, unable to carry on until the tournament, and only two recognised strikers will be with the squad in Abu Dhabi.

They'll have to find a way round that, but one thing Estudiantes won't lack is determination. Their captain's dad wouldn't allow that, and nor would the club's history. Opponents had better be ready.

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