There's only Juan Veron
When he took a huge pay cut to leave Internazionale and return to his boyhood club in Argentina, Juan Sebastián Verón couldn't have dreamed this.
One thing has haunted Estudiantes for almost forty years, though. The Copa Libertadores. On Wednesday night, they came from a goal down away to Brazil's Cruzeiro to claim their fourth Copa, and their first in thirty-nine years. And there could be no more fitting captain on such a night than a man named Verón.
When Estudiantes won three straight Copas in 1968, '69 and '70, forward Juan Ramón Verón was arguably their best player. Fast forward four decades and his son Seba finally stepped out of his shadow. In January I wrote that it was nice to see the most prestigious South American individual award given to a player who'd chosen to return home. Seven months down the line, Verón proved with one pass on Wednesday night that this young Estudiantes side still revolve around him.
It came in the fifty-eighth minute of Wednesday night's final second leg. Estudiantes, having dominated a first leg which ended goalless thanks entirely to a performance of sustained brilliance from Cruzeiro goalkeeper Fábio, had just fallen behind to a cruelly deflected shot from distance from Brazilian midfielder Henrique. Searching for their rhythm, the ball came to Verón, and the man known as La Brujita ('the little witch') wove his magic; cutting inside one marker, he headed for the centre of Cruzeiro's half of the enormous Minerão pitch and unhesitatingly played a thirty-yard ball out to the right.
That pass split Cruzeiro wide open, allowing Estudiantes' right back Cristian Cellay to send in a cross which somehow evaded two defenders and the goalkeeper, and was nudged over the line by Gastón Fernández to put the Argentines back on level terms. Fifteen minutes later, Mauro Boselli rose above the pack and headed them into the lead. They held on in the face of relentless pressure - late on, substitute Athirson crashed a shot against the crossbar from a corner - and Verón went inches away from putting it beyond doubt with a free kick from long range. Estudiantes had won in a manner all Argentines love: with a victory in Brazil.
These two teams had already played each other twice earlier in the competition, both qualifying from Group 5. Those two encounters had both ended in heavy wins for the home side - a 3-0 win for Cruzeiro in the first match of the group stage was avenged with a 4-0 victory for Estudiantes back in La Plata. It was no surprise, then, that last week's first leg in La Plata was a one-sided affair with nearly all the chances going to Estudiantes. Fábio pulled off three unbelievable saves and a couple of only slightly more credible ones to keep the tie goalless and allow home advantage to swing Cruzeiro's way for the second leg in Belo Horizonte.
The first half on Wednesday night, though, was remarkably even. At times, Estudiantes looked the more assured team, as if the pressure of being the home side was getting to Cruzeiro. The crowd in Brazil's second largest stadium roared their team forward, though, and it took inspired (or forunate) interventions from Estudiantes' centre backs, Rolando Schiavi - signed on an 'emergency' loan for two months from Newell's Old Boys after injuries to two Estudiantes defenders prior to the semi-final second leg against Nacional in Uruguay - and Leandro Desábato, to keep the hosts out.
That was why, when Henrique's shot from distance hit Desábato's shin, changing course by just enough to fly between Catania-bound goalkeeper Mariando Andújar's hand and his post, those who wanted Estudiantes to win - and as the only Argentine side to make it to the quarter-finals, they had no shortage of support back home - feared the game might be up. But they reckoned without the character of manager Alejandro Sabella's team.
Since the return of the prodigal Verón junior in 2006, Estudiantes have hit upon a great formula for running a football club in an economically unstable country where they're aware their brightest youngsters will be off to Europe rapidly: making Verón, already a club legend on his return, the reference point for the team. The young players look up to him and seem prepared to hang around just a little longer for the benefit of his experience. His deep-lying playmaking never depended on pace, meaning that, whilst Estudiantes might not play the most blistering all-out attacking football in Argentina, they have had probably the best switch from defence to attack in the country.
It was hard not to watch the goals scored by those two without a trace of irony. Twenty-four-year-old Boselli was first loaned and then sold to Estudiantes by Boca Juniors, who couldn't find room for him in their team. Fernández arrived in La Plata via San Lorenzo and Mexico after River Plate decided he wasn't good enough.
Verón, clearly, is still good enough for any of them, and his dad knows it; "My son is the greatest player in Estudiantes' history," he told the press on Thursday. It would sound like mere fatherly pride coming from anyone else. Juan Ramón, though, knows that his boy might just have taken his own position in the fans' hearts.