2 Mar 2003: It’s not often a multi-million pound international footballer is prepared, or indeed able, to talk about the political turmoil of his homeland. But then Seba Veron is no ordinary player. Amy Raphael finds Manchester United’s Argentine star to be passionate, articulate and full of surprises.
Juan Sebastian Veron would like it to be known that while he likes Italy – loves Italy, in fact – he has no intention of playing football there again. Not at club level, anyway. ‘I spent five years of my life in Italy, yes,’ he says, stretching his long legs out and sighing. ‘But when I decided to come to Manchester, it was never going to be for six months or one season. All those stories about me signing up for one Serie A club or another are totally made up. I like it here. I’m comfortable. I feel good here.’
The question is an unavoidable one. Since joining Manchester United in the summer of 2001, barely a week has gone by in which Veron has not been linked with a move back to Serie A – usually to Lazio, where for two seasons Veron, an Argentine with some Italian ancestry, had spectacular success, notably in 2000 when the team, inspired by his midfield prowess and managed by the current England coach Sven-GËran Eriksson, won only the second Serie A title in their history.
Given that Veron left Argentina for Italy at the age of 21 (when Eriksson signed him for Sampdoria) it is hardly surprising that he sees it as a second home. He still has friends there, not to mention a number of houses. He would like to visit both on a regular basis, but does so less these days because he knows the stories will start again. ‘Sometimes I really do think twice about going back because I’m a bit tired of having to explain every time that I don’t want to play in Italy.’
Last season there was another reason for the stories. His form. When Sir Alex Ferguson broke the British transfer record by paying just over £28m for Veron, it was generally thought to be a fair price for the midfielder who had performed so sublimely during Argentina’s unforgettable World Cup encounter with England at France 98. The player who wore his socks loose and low, and had apparently limitless supplies of skill and stamina, was the epitome of continental cool. After a decent start at United, however, those high expectations were not fulfilled, and by the end of last season even some United fans were describing him as a fair-weather player. This season did not begin well either, but since Christmas Veron’s form has returned – and there have even been glimpses of his breathtaking best. The doubters, and there were many, are being forced to reconsider.
There are many theories for the upturn in his fortunes. One is that it can take even the best players a while to adapt to the demands of the Premiership (it took Thierry Henry a good season to find his feet in English football). Another is that an Achilles injury that dogged him for the best part of a year seems to have healed.
The player himself suggests a further one; that he is finally feeling at home in England, and in the United dressing room in particular. He is still working on his English (our conversation is mostly in Argentine Spanish with a little Italian) but is now able to chat to his team-mates. And, as we sit on the balcony of the reception in Carrington, United’s state-of-the-art training ground, it becomes obvious that not only is camaraderie vital to this team’s wellbeing, but also that Veron is now one of the lads. There is a good vibe around the place, and ‘Seba’ is clearly part of it. Training has just finished and as we start to talk the Neville brothers (wearing ‘Italia’ sweatshirts) are clowning around with their sister Tracey and father Neville Neville, while Laurent Blanc, tall, lean and composed, switches easily between French, English and Italian, as he reflects on the laid-back nature of fellow Frenchman Fabien Barthez, who is late for an interview.
‘Not only is the training and football itself very different here than in Italy, but it’s also difficult working alongside someone and not really knowing what to say to them,’ Veron says, smiling. ‘When they are joking together or winding each other up, it’s important that I can join in. Important not only for me but for the group as a whole.’
The one person not smiling is Roy Keane, who suddenly appears in the doorway. A bottle of water in one hand, a sports drink in the other, he says nothing, but everything about him, facial expression, body language, indicates that a storm might be brewing. He disappears. Veron grins, raises an eyebrow, and insists that Keane is the key member of the United team. ‘He is an institution at this club. He has a strong personality which is good for the players. As a team-mate, he’s excellent in every sense. Keano will tell you things straight but he’ll also be the first to give you a helping hand.’ Keane has been quick to praise Veron’s ‘terrific’ displays this season. Veron adds, a little surprisingly, that Keane is one of the team’s practical jokers (along with the Nevilles and Nicky Butt).
There may be a final reason for Veron to stay: the quality of the football on offer in England. A few years ago, there would have been no question that the Italian league outranked its English counterpart in glamour and skill. But with Italian clubs having struggled in the Champions League in recent years, there is a general feeling that English football is at least Italy’s equal. That is certainly Veron’s view. ‘Everyone will tell you that it’s a good standard of football here,’ he says firmly, ‘and that is backed up by the statistics that put it right up there with the Spanish league. Italian football is beginning to come out of the crisis it’s been going through. But from what I know, what I see and what I hear, English football is the number one choice of many players.’
The last time I spoke to Veron, just over a year ago, the draw had just been made for last summer’s World Cup finals pitching England against Argentina. So, naturally, we had talked about the deep rivalry between the two countries. His first memory of a World Cup was Mexico in 1986 when Diego Maradona made Argentina world champions almost on his own. On the way England were beaten in the quarter-finals with two of the most incredible goals in football. ‘I was only nine,’ Veron had recalled, ‘but I clearly remember watching it on TV. It was incredibly emotional. You have to remember that we are probably the most fanatical fans in the world and that the average Argentine lives for football. We saw Diego in his finest World Cup, scoring that famous goal – well, two famous goals.’
At the time Argentina, having qualified well ahead of Brazil, weren’t just favourites to beat England, but to win the whole 2002 tournament. I asked if they were worth a bet. He laughed shyly, but said yes. As it was, of course, they lost to England and, in one of the shocks that characterised the competition, failed even to make it out of the group stages.
What had happened? Veron looks at the floor, rests his hands on his legs, revealing his bitten nails. A small ring with a diamond-encrusted ‘S’ is on the little finger of his right hand; he twists it around. ‘What can I say?’ He pauses. ‘We lost. There’s not a lot you can say to explain why. Though I do think it was a strange World Cup with the big sides going out early and South Korea getting to the semi-finals.’
He looks up. ‘For me it certainly wasn’t a great World Cup, but I don’t ever try to go too deeply into the reasons why. We lost and now we must think about what lies ahead.’
It was tough for the French, as holders, to go out in the first round too, but infinitely tougher for the Argentines for whom the tournament was much more than just another sporting competition.
Six months before the finals the people of Argentina had taken to the streets to protest about the economic chaos into which successive leaders had dragged them. For a depressed nation on the brink of economic collapse, football was no mere distraction – it was the foremost expression of national pride. Failure in the finals was too terrible to contemplate.
‘We were taking on such an enormous responsibility,’ Veron recalls now. ‘Argentina was going through a serious economic crisis and the people really needed something to give them a lift. In that sense, we made it our responsibility to try and help. We supported companies that were on the brink of closing down, such as Aerolineas Argentinas, the national airline. Before a couple of international games we wore training tops with messages of support and we also carried banners onto the field.’
He leans forward in his stiff armchair and searches for the right words to explain his feelings of frustration. ‘When we were knocked out of the World Cup, we felt really bad because we hadn’t been able to bring that feeling of happiness to people back home, however temporary it might have been. Had we won, it might have helped people through the day at a time when they had nothing to eat or a time when they were without work. That hit us very hard at the time and those feelings still come back to this day. There was so much hope and expectation. The people had lost faith in politicians and public figures, they needed something to believe in that could make them proud to be Argentine.’ Now, though, Veron is confident that the situation in his home country is improving, albeit slowly. ‘Although everything hasn’t been completely solved, it’s calmer and less desperate now. For example, people can now get access to their savings, which for a long time they couldn’t, not even the middle classes.’
The subject is clearly very close to Veron’s heart, in a humanitarian if not overtly political way. His analysis of what went wrong is passionate, articulate and illuminating.
‘The important thing is that the people realise what the politicians as a whole were really doing to the country,’ he says, intently. ‘That’s important because before in Argentina we’ve always had what we would call the middle class, as well as the rich and the poor. However the middle class was gradually becoming part of the poorer class in Argentina. Before they’d always had enough money for their holidays, their car, to buy a TV or go on that special trip. As long as they could do all those things, the middle classes were happy, but when this was denied them, they realised just how bad things were becoming in the country as a whole.
‘So all this time the politicians had been fooling the middle classes and the country had kept surviving, but once this reasonable standard of living had been taken away, they knew the truth and that the politicians weren’t what they seemed. They were now finally experiencing the reality of life in Argentina and what that reality had been for the last 20 to 30 years. The middle classes are the people with influence and it was they who took to the street in protest when they discovered that their money was frozen in the bank. Those who didn’t have a lot, their life hadn’t really changed, neither had that of the very rich, who could still live well. However the middle class who had lost their comfortable existence now realised what had been going on in their country. This isn’t anything new, this is something which goes all the way back to the time of Peron and the various dictatorships that followed when they started to remove the country’s wealth. It was the last few governments that kept the process going and then just finished the country off.’
It is an impressive analysis from someone who makes his living from football. Then again, Veron is in a strange position – living luxuriously abroad, earning more in a few months than most of his countrymen do in a lifetime, yet all too aware of his country’s problems and possessing a developed sense of social responsibility. He recently started a centre for street kids with his father in La Plata. No big fuss, no grand opening. He did it after reading about similar projects run his fellow Argentine internationals Christian Zanetti and Marcello Gallardo in Argentina, and by the Brazilians Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. The concept is simple, as is its name, ‘Semilla’ or ‘Seed’; it’s a place where kids can have lunch and dinner and hang out.
‘Its progress was slowed down by the crisis in Argentina, but finally it’s up and running,’ Veron says proudly. ‘We have 70 kids and we’re trying to organise classes for them, perhaps give them an opportunity take part in some sports.’ He smiles. ‘It’s important because it gives the kids hope for the future, it gets them off the street and away from drugs and crime. It’s pretty special, something I feel good about.’
Veron’s own background was, he says, working class. His mother was one of six brothers and sisters, and her father had to get up at six every morning to catch the train to make the 60-mile journey from La Plata to Buenos Aires. He wouldn’t be back till 10pm. Veron’s father, also Juan Veron, was sent out to work selling milk at the age of 10, but became a professional footballer at 17, playing for Estudiantes de la Plata, one of Argentina’s leading clubs and picking up four caps for his country. His most famous moment came in 1968, when he scored for Estudiantes against Manchester United in the World Club Cup tie at Old Trafford.
Although footballers in the Sixties were famous, they did not earn anything like their modern counterparts. Veron recalls growing up with his brother and sister in a family that wasn’t badly off but whose lifestyle didn’t compare to the one he now enjoys. ‘We had good times and bad times as a family. We had to eat what we were given and not turn our noses up or ask for something different. We couldn’t afford a lot of clothes.’ He is glad it turned out this way, he says; it taught him to appreciate things, not to be spoilt or greedy. He is reported to earn more than £4m a year, but insists that he never throws money around, although he does have a collection of Ferraris and a Mercedes, and lives in a luxury house in the suburbs of Manchester with his childhood sweetheart and their two young kids.
He is not sure about living in Argentina again. The idea appeals, but he would worry about the safety of his children, he says, which in turn would make him feel like a prisoner in his own home. What about returning one day to coach the national team? This provokes a more definite answer. ‘No. No. No,’ he says, smiling. ‘Basta! Enough! Coaches have to make more sacrifices than players. Too much stress, too much responsibility. You have to be pretty special. So. No. I’m not the right sort of character; I’d be arguing with my players! I’d rather train young kids, who are at the age where they want to listen and learn.’
A big figure bounds effortlessly up the stairs and appears on the balcony, his face is lost behind his grin. ‘Hello, are you a translator?’ he asks our translator. ‘I’m very good at Spanish. I’ve got 15 minutes spare if you need me.’ Veron leans back in his chair and laughs. Ruud van Nistelrooy pretends to look disappointed. ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘see you later, Seba.’
It is way past lunchtime and Veron is talked out. He stands up, stretches, puts on his elegant suede, fur-lined coat and picks up his Manchester United carrier bag. He shouts ‘ciao’ and ‘adios’, climbs into his big silver Mercedes and pumps up the music. He used to listen to Argentine music but this afternoon he flips the CD to Oasis.
Argen-time line: The Argentines who have played in Britain
Osvaldo Ardiles. Midfielder, Spurs, 1978-88 (293 appearances)
Ricardo Villa Midfielder, Spurs, 1978-83 (168)
Alex Sabella Midfielder, Sheffield United, 1978-80 (76); Leeds, 1980-82 (27)
Alberto Tarantini Defender, Birmingham, 1978-79 (2)
Mauricio Taricco, Defender, Ipswich, 1994-98 (167); Spurs, 1998 – present (101*)
Nelson Vivas, Defender, Arsenal, 1998-01 (40)
Fabian Caballero, Midfielder, Arsenal (loan), 1998-99 (3); Dundee, 2000 – present (71*)
Juan Cobian Forward, Sheffield Wed 1998-99 (9); Aberdeen, 1999-2000 (3); Swindon, 2000 – present (4*)
Horacio Carbonari. (Argentine born, Italian now) Defender, Derby, 1998 – present (101* – 5 on loan to Coventry in 2002)
Esteban Fuertes, Forward, Derby, 1999-99 (10)
Carlos Arturo Marinelli, Midfielder, Middlesbrough, 1999 – present (23*)
Juan Sara, Forward, Dundee, 1999 onwards (91* – 3* on loan to Coventry, 2002-03)
Pablo Bonvin Forward, Newcastle, 2000-01 (0); Sheffield Wed, 2001 – present (31*)
Daniel Cordone, Forward, Newcastle, 2000-2001 (13)
Claudio Caniggia, Forward, Dundee, 2000-01 (24); Rangers, 2001 – present (40*)
Christian Bassedas, Midfielder, Newcastle, 2000 – present (25* )
Mateo Corbo, Midfielder, Barnsley, 2000 – present (18*)
Julio Arca, Defender, Sunderland, 2000 – present (66 * )
Nicolas Medina, Midfielder, Sunderland, 2001 – present (1*)
Luciano Zavagno, Defender, Derby, 2001 – present (33*)
Sixto Peralta, Midfielder, Ipswich on loan, 2001-2002 (4)
Vicente Matias Vuoso, Forward, Manchester City, 2002 – present (0*)
Facundo Sava, Forward, Fulham, 2002 – present (19* )
Julian Speroni, Goalkeeper, Dundee, 2002 – present (50*)
Martin Herrera, Goalkeeper, Fulham, 2002 – present (0*)
Leonardo Biagini, Forward, Portsmouth on loan, 2002 to end of season (3*)
Sebastien Scalise, forward, Exeter City, began three-month loan in 2002 ( 1*)
Federico Arias, Forward, Southampton, 2003 – present (0*)
Beto Carranza, Midfielder, Dundee, 2002 – present (57* )
Also Lucas Gatti, Beto Garrido, Walter Del Rio and Beto Naveda all appeared on Dundee’s books for the 2001-02 season.
* Up to 21 February 2003