‘Truly beautiful’: How Juan Sebastian Veron reaffirmed his artistry at Inter
Juan Sebastian Veron’s fall from grace in the Premier League is well-documented. What’s less highlighted, however, is how the Argentine was able to rebuild his reputation at Inter Milan with the help of an old friend.
Manchester United shelled out a British transfer record fee of £28.1million for Veron in the summer of 2001, with Alex Ferguson proclaiming him “one of the best players in the world.”
Yet by the time Veron departed for Inter in 2004, it’s no exaggeration to say he was a broken man, both literally and figuratively.
Veron undoubtedly struggled to adjust to the demands of the Premier League, but there was more to it than that. At Lazio, he had excelled as a deep-lying playmaker or ‘regista’ where his vision and impressive passing range came to the fore.
Part of what made Veron so effective was the presence of teammates like Matias Almeyda and Diego Simeone, who picked up the defensive slack for their more creatively-minded compatriot.
At Manchester United, however, Veron was expected to match the work rate of his midfield partner and captain Roy Keane – a feat most would struggle with.
Though he started regularly in Europe, there was no room for complacency in the Premier League with the likes of Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt ready and able to take his place.
At the time, Ferguson dismissed any suggestion Veron was struggling, famously telling one reporter he was a “f*cking great player.” Yet the Scot changed his tune soon after Veron was sold to Chelsea for a cut-price £15million in 2003.
“Juan Veron was capable of exceptional football and was talented. But, at times, he found the Premiership a bit difficult,” he said. “He was a European player and that was where we got our best form from him.”
Ferguson’s assessment belied the reasons for Veron’s arrival in the first place though. Manchester United already had midfielders good enough to dominate the Premier League. Veron was signed to add quality to their European endeavours.
He did that up to a point but, as is the case in knockout Champions League football, was unable to give them the edge in close-run defeats to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals during his first season at the club and then to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals a year later. When a European Cup failed to materialise, Veron was the obvious scapegoat.
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Chelsea was a different story. Despite a goal on his debut against Liverpool, Veron’s single season at Stamford Bridge was wrecked by back and hernia injuries that restricted him to just 15 appearances.
His nadir came in Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final defeat to unfancied AS Monaco where, for reasons unknown, Claudio Ranieri decided to field the returning Veron out on the wing. Once again, the Argentine became a lightning rod for criticism.
By the time Jose Mourinho arrived at the club the following summer, Veron was practically begging to return to Serie A.
“My wish would be to come back to Italy,” he told Corriere dello Sport. “It’s a life choice primarily rather than a professional one.”
In truth, Veron might have never left Italy in the first place had it not been for the fake passport scandal that engulfed Serie A around the turn of the millennium with the Argentine facing a potential two-year ban from the game.
Though he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, a perceived lack of support from Lazio coupled with his treatment in Italy had left a bitter taste in the mouth. But now Veron was ready to forgive and forget.
“I have the will to come back to Italy,” he declared. “I’m 29 years old and I’d like to live the last important step of my career in a country that has already given me a lot.”
Inter quickly emerged as the likely destination with the inexpensive loan signing of Veron seen as the ideal salve after a season in which first Hector Cuper and then Alberto Zaccheroni were sacked following a run of disappointing results.
This was still the Massimo Moratti era too, with the Inter chairman bankrolling any number of weird and wonderful signings in the pursuit of silverware – Edgar Davids and Sinisa Mihaljovic also arrived that summer.
Yet, for Veron, the most crucial new addition would come a few weeks after his arrival when Inter finally negotiated the release of Roberto Mancini from his contract as Lazio manager.
Mancini’s role in transforming the fortunes of Inter often gets overlooked, in part because of what his successor, Jose Mourinho, achieved at the club. Yet it’s worth remembering Inter had gone 16 years without winning any kind of domestic silverware prior to his arrival.
On a personal level, there was no one better placed to get the best out of Veron. Mancini had played alongside the Argentine at Sampdoria and Lazio. At Sampdoria, Mancini had developed a knack for knowing when to challenge Veron and when to gee him up with an ego-massaging pep talk.
From his very first press conference, it was clear that he saw Veron as central to his plans at Inter. “I think that he’s one of the world’s strongest midfielders,” he told reporters. “It’s important he will do what he’s able to do.”
Mancini was true to his word, building his midfield around Veron’s talents. The Argentine was deployed as a deep-lying playmaker or in a central midfield role with the likes of Dejan Stankovic and Estaban Cambiasso in support. That gave him free rein to build play from deep and create chances for the likes of Alvaro Recoba, Adriano and Christian Vieri.
Veron set the tempo for an Inter team that attacked with vigour and was hard to beat – the Nerazzurri lost just twice in Serie A that season and progressed all the way to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
It was a campaign that provided plenty of personal highlights. There was a brilliant lofted assist for Adriano in a 2-0 win over Werder Bremen in the Champions League, a neat through ball that set up Obafemi Martins for a crucial winner against Atalanta in the Coppa Italia and a thunderous strike from the edge of the area against Fiorentina.
But Veron’s game was always about more than goals and assists.
Though they ended up a distant third to Juventus in Serie A and exited the Champions League to arch-rivals AC Milan after the second leg of their quarter-final tie was abandoned due to crowd trouble, Veron and Mancini still ended up with something to show for their first season back together in Serie A, taking the 2005 Coppa Italia with a comfortable 3-0 win aggregate win over AS Roma.
It was just reward for both men, particularly after Veron had come out fighting for Mancini following their Champions League exit and a run of poor form in the league.
Asked about his own future, Veron switched the focus: “Roberto Mancini above all should be confirmed as leader of the team. He has given us a playing identity and has worked hard and well.”
That summer, Veron sealed his exit from Chelsea, signing for Inter on a two-year loan that covered the remainder of his contract with the Blues. A month later, he confirmed his return to Serie A’s elite with an extra-time winner against Juventus to claim the Supercoppa Italiana.
Though he failed to feature in Inter’s triumphant Coppa Italia campaign that second season, Veron made 25 appearances in Serie A, racking up six assists with the pick of the bunch coming against his old club Lazio, and a delightful threaded through ball to set up Recoba in a 3-1 win.
Inter would ultimately go on to win the Scudetto that year, following the disqualification of Juventus, who had finished seven points clear of the Nerazzurri, following the Calciopoli scandal.
Not that Veron cared much about the circumstances, later telling Calcio2000 that the title ranked among the most beloved of his career.
“Every trophy I have won has its own history and importance. The first one I won was the Italian cup with Parma. I had never won anything before so it was beautiful,” he said. “So was the last trophy I won which came with Inter. In the middle of them there was the Scudetto with Lazio. They are three trophies that I will never forget.”
There might have even been one further addendum to Veron’s resurrection at Inter had it not been for an ill-tempered encounter with Villarreal in the Champions League.
It was a game notable for Veron’s ugly exchange with Villarreal’s Juan Pablo Sorin, who reacted angrily to a robust challenge from the midfielder. Insults were exchanged as the two players squared up to each other.
Eager to maintain harmony ahead of the 2006 World Cup, manager Jose Pekerman sided with his then-captain Sorin, meaning there would be no recall for Veron, who four years earlier had been cast in the role of villain following Argentina’s early exit.
Veron did not hold on to any ill-feeling though. Having always said Inter would be his final European adventure, the midfield maestro stayed true to his word, joining his boyhood team Estudiantes de la Plata for a South American swansong that would ultimately dwarf his Inter exploits and even land him an Argentina recall.
However, there’s a sense that Veron is aware of how crucial those two years were in helping rewrite his football legacy and how important a role Mancini played in that. Conversely, without Veron, Mancini and Inter may not have gone on to the period of success that followed.
Veron later reflected on his time with Mancini: “The memories I have with him are plenty and truly beautiful, both as a player and as Inter coach. I owe him a very special thanks. When few people relied on me, he strongly believed in me.”