The last goodbye: When Juan Sebastián Verón un-retired at 42 to flog VIP boxes
In 2017, Juan Sebastián Verón came out of retirement to play in the Copa Libertadores for Estudiantes, the club for whom he acted as president. He was 42.
Many players return home at the end of their careers, playing a season or two for their hometown club to indulge in some gentle nostalgia.
You know the drill: a respected veteran wants to move closer to their family, and the local club is happy to oblige. Tickets get sold, fans get autographs, everybody wins.
For Juan Sebastián Verón, however, that final stop proved to be far more substantial.
Upon returning to Argentine side Estudiantes as a 31-year-old in 2006, the former Manchester United and Chelsea midfielder rediscovered his best form, winning three trophies and numerous personal accolades during his prolonged autumn years.
Having stuttered in England, Verón’s form back in Argentina transformed his career, earning him two South American Footballer of the Year awards and ending his four-year international exile.
In 2009, when Verón was 34, Estudiantes won the Copa Libertadores, with the midfielder named Player of the Tournament.
A fitting time to retire, perhaps?
Hardly. Verón still had the time — and energy — to appear at the 2010 World Cup, something that would have seemed unthinkable to anyone who, a full seven years prior, had seen the playmaker struggle to make Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea team ahead of Geremi.
Verón finally said goodbye to Estudiantes in 2012, aged 37.
But while playing until 37 would represent a remarkable achievement for any athlete, Verón still wasn’t quite done.
Return at 38
Shortly after retirement, Verón played some football with lower-league side Brandsen before returning to Estudiantes to work as director of football.
However, the allure of match day in La Plata proved too great.
By the start 2013-14 season, a 38-year-old Verón was back in the red and white jersey, coming out of retirement for what was technically his fourth spell at Estudiantes.
In the Torneo Final, the second half of the Argentine domestic season, Estudiantes challenged for the title, eventually finishing third behind River Plate and Boca Juniors.
And despite his age, Verón was still a force, dominating games from a deep midfield position and supplying passes to the likes of Guido Carrillo, a player whose experience in English football did not differ greatly from Verón’s.
When the season wrapped up, the playmaker once again hung up his boots on their now-familiar hook.
And this time, things looked more definitive.
Verón, 39 at the time of the campaign’s close, could not play every match, and he would soon have even greater responsibilities; in October 2014, he was elected Estudiantes’ new president, receiving 70 percent of the vote from club members.
The player known as the ‘Little Witch’ was now expected to sprinkle some magic on administrative matters.
Here’s a question, though: as a supporter of a football team, what strategy would best entice you into buying a season ticket?
Would it be the Arsenal approach of the late Wenger years? To drum up fantastical transfer rumours in June, only to disappoint by September?
Maybe you’d prefer a simple price freeze, or perhaps you want the best seat in the house and know that a long-term commitment is the best way to get it.
Maybe your team offers a complimentary half-time snack for premium members.
Here’s a plan that would definitely get you signing up, though: what if your team promised that a 40-something former player would be thrown back into the action for key European fixtures — just as long as your stadium sold enough season tickets?
Picture it: 41-year-old Frank Lampard showing Mateo Kovacic how it’s done against Ajax. Jamie Carragher filling in for Joel Matip against Genk. Surely David Beckham could do a job for Manchester United in Kazakhstan?
In effect, that’s exactly what Verón did as president of Estudiantes.
With the club looking to offload more tickets for its VIP boxes, Verón thought of the perfect way to get fans on board. If they managed to buy up 65% of the boxes at the new stadium, he would embark on playing spell number five, featuring only in the Copa Libertadores — South America’s version of the Champions League.
Better still, he would play for a nominal salary, all of which would be “donated for the development of the club”.
Return at 42
The offer had the desired effect. Fans coughed up, and Verón hired a personal trainer to get his 42-year-old body into shape.
Then, on 12 April, 2017, the legend was back on the pitch, playing in the club’s second group-stage match against Barcelona SC of Ecuador.
In doing so, Verón made history by becoming the competition’s oldest ever player. Unfortunately, Estudiantes still lost 2-0, their second defeat in two games.
They won the next, but by the time they lost the fourth game to Atlético Nacional, progression to the next round was beyond them.
That meant Verón’s plan to see out an 18-month contract was ultimately cut short.
Not that there wasn’t time for a few more fireworks. In the penultimate game of the group stage, the playmaker appeared from the bench to help seal a comprehensive 3-0 win over Barcelona SC.
Truly defying his age one last time, Verón skipped down the right wing past a dumbfounded Barcelona defender, composing himself and crossing low to teammate Facundo Sánchez.
The goal was not significant, but Verón lifted both arms in triumph — a final sweet moment on this final, final journey as a player.
The on-pitch president also had time for one last home match, playing 93 minutes in a 1-0 win over Brazilian side Botafogo, and was applauded off the pitch when substituted.
Deep down though, fans may well expect him to come back in another couple of years. You wouldn’t bet against it.