Born into a footballing family in La Plata, Juan Sebastian Veron was always destined for greatness.
His father, nicknamed ‘La Bruja’ (The Witch), had beguiled the small Argentine town with his performances for local side Estudiantes, something that Juan himself was destined to do some years later. Standing at 6 feet tall, even as a teenager, Veron had the aesthetic of an archetypal midfield general, but he was much more than that.
After humble beginnings at his hometown club, Veron got the first big move of his career when he joined one of Argentina’s ‘big two’ in the shape of Boca Juniors. It was at La Bombonera where Veron made his name on the national stage, teaming up with Diego Maradona to make a childhood dream reality.
Veron gained national recognition but was to spend just one season with Boca before Italy and Sven Goran Eriksson came calling. ‘La Brujita’ (The Little Witch), a tribute to his father, made his way to Sampdoria in the summer of 1996.
At the time, you struggled to find a more hipster side to watch in Italy. Coached by the Swedish tactician, the Genoa-based outfit were rebuilding the side following the departure of Enrico Chiesa, a man who Veron would meet later in his career.
Il Doria boasted a front line of Roberto Mancini and Vincenzo Montella, whilst also having the controversial Serbian Sinisa Mihajlovic in their ranks. Sven was three years into his project and with a Coppa Italia already in the trophy cabinet, he was hungry for more. Plying his trade alongside France World Cup winner Christian Karembeu in the middle of the park, Veron shone brightly.
Combative displays in domestic and European action won the plaudits of media and the club’s fans alike, with Eriksson singling him out as being the side’s chief creator. Two years at the Luigi Ferrari put him on the map, and his performances for the national side led to a move to another popular Serie A side, Parma.
Veron’s £15m price tag put him up there with the world’s most expensive players, but he was worth every penny. The Argentine swiftly transformed himself into one of the leading creative midfielders in Europe.
Veron made the team tick, as they lifted the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup in 1999, laying on goals for his fellow countryman Hernan Crespo and the enigmatic Chiesa. His performances led to his stay in Reggio Emilia lasting just a solitary season. Sven, who himself had moved on to spearhead the ambitious plans of Sergio Cragnott’s Lazio, picked up the phone again, tempting the midfielder to Rome.
It was at Lazio where he entered superstardom and comfortably lifted his reputation to that of a top midfielder in world football.
He was re-united with his old boss who lauded him as “one of the best passers in European football and an extremely talented footballer,” upon his £18.5million move to the Stadio Olimpico.
The previous term, in which Veron had been so successful with Parma, Lazio had fallen agonisingly short of the Scudetto they had be craving since their solitary title back in 1973/74.
In their haste to break this duck, Lazio made drastic changes, selling Christian Vieri to Inter for a record fee, whilst Diego Simeone came the other way and the remaining money was spent on signing Veron and his fellow countryman Nestor Sensini from Parma.
Their squad was now amongst the strongest in Serie A and had received significant investment with the ultimate goal of becoming Rome’s premier side and regularly being able to compete on the European stage.
The side was jam-packed with experience in the form of Sensini, Roberto Mancini, Simeone and Paolo Negro.
Its midfield featured future Ballon d’Or winner Pavel Nedved, battling Italian Attilio Lombardo and Argentine anchor Matias Almeyda.
The next generation was also covered with Alessandro ‘The Wall’ Nesta coming through the ranks into the first team. Nesta would go onto win Scudettos with Milan, as well as a World Cup and two Champions League titles.
The star-studded line-up clicked into perfect rhythm in 1999/00 upon Veron’s arrival. He was the missing piece of the jigsaw, and took to the Olimpico like a duck to water.
The elegant midfielder produced a number of standout performances, including a goal and two assists in the 4-0 drubbing of Verona at the Olimpico to take Lazio top, and a match-winning display in Lazio’s crowning day win over Reggina in front of their own fans.
Registering eight goals and two assists in the league, Veron earned himself a place in the Serie A Team of the Season. Lazio lost just four league games all season on their way to a league and cup double.
Veron became immortalised in Rome, forever remembered as an integral member of their best ever side. A side that boasted quality but was ultimately run by the engine room in midfield.
Simeone brought the brawn, whereas Veron added the brains, with the Lazio faithful dubbing him ‘l’orchestratore’ (The Orchestrator).
Veron had been a qualified success, and helped bring the Scudetto back to the blue side of the eternal city after nearly thirty years of pain.
The Argentine put his performances down to his coach. Later in his career, Veron exclaimed that Eriksson was “the best coach I could have dreamed of” and “he let me play my way and showed trust in my like no other coach in my career.”
Following Lazio’s failure to retain the Scudetto in 2001, Veron opted for a change of scenery with Eriksson leaving to take on the England national coach’s position. But for the Biancocelesti faithful, he represents the creative cog in their greatest side. A reminder of the halcyon days, ones for which the club have been paying their dues ever since.
On his return to the club for a matchday visit in 2019, Veron exclaimed: “I feel so many emotions because here I spent two extraordinary years here and it’s hard to forget that, it’s always nice to come back and find these people,” said Veron.” We were a great team with champions in every role and with a strong character, I’m glad that people have a good memory of me and the whole group.”
Serie A fans will always be able to relate to the Argentine midfielder as a man with class. His consummate ease in controlling the ball and playing passes through the channels devastated many defences, and every side that came up against him knew his quality.
He had everything a footballer wants that you cannot teach. His technique on the ball allowed him to glide with the ball. His passing range made it easy for his teammates to find space, and he was also partial to a long-range thunderbolt.
Juan Sebastian Veron was a superstar in his own right. A player who sported the low socks, he was a maverick, a natural, and ultimately Lazio’s difference-maker.
Words by: Jake Smalley