South America’s player of the year seeks to end career on a high

Everything Barcelona’s Lionel Messi touched at club level in 2009 may have turned to gold but Juan Sebastian Veron wasn’t too far behind his countryman, leading Estudiantes to the Libertadores Cup and retaining his personal crown as South America’s footballer of the year.

Now the pair are set to combine as Argentina go in search of World Cup success this summer. But while Messi has youth on his side, the Estudiantes captain, who turns 35 in March, will need to pace himself carefully in South Africa – and at least he will no longer be burdened with carrying the hopes of a nation all on his own.

In 2002 the all-action Veron, then a Manchester United player, was the lynchpin in Marcelo Bielsa’s team and Argentina’s World Cup hopes lay firmly on his shoulders. However, failure to get through the group stage led to fans turning against the perceived villain.

It was a long, hard slog to win back those fans, but Veron has done so to the extent that, eight years on, Argentina look to him as much as they do the world’s top player, Messi.

That so much is expected of Messi should, however, be good for Veron and should Argentina fail he will not, surely, be the scapegoat again. This time, that fate could well fall to coach Diego Maradona if he fails to find the right partners for Veron.

Coming back to Estudiantes in 2006 after a decade in Europe, Veron has already achieved most of the goals he set himself by winning the Libertadores Cup – a competition his father, Juan Ramon Veron, won three times with Estudiantes.

Veron junior is a huge figure at the club, with Estudiantes coach Alex Sabella – who won two domestic league titles with the team as a player in the early 1980s – calling him “the outstanding player in the history of Estudiantes de La Plata” and La Nacion columnist Juan Pablo Varsky arguing that Veron is a unique case of a player meaning so much to a club. “Sebastian influences all aspects of life at Estudiantes: on the pitch, in the changing room, among the fans and the board,” Varsky claimed.

An example of Veron’s importance can be seen in Estudiantes’ new gymnasium – which was inspired by the gym at La Pinetina, the training facility of Veron’s last club in Italy, Internazionale, and paid for by the man himself.

There has been talk of Veron returning to Manchester to play for United’s rivals City, under his former Lazio team-mate and Inter coach Roberto Mancini, but World Cup success is Veron’s greatest challenge at the moment – something that would be the icing on the cake before he ultimately begins a new phase of his career behind the scenes at Estudiantes.