Gregory Sica
Thursday July 16th, 2009

All right, Juan Sebastián Verón -- maybe Major League Soccer fans can forgive you now.

On Wednesday night, nearly two years to the day after the Argentine star turned his back on D.C. United at the last minute, Verón accomplished the very thing he wanted to do: ending Estudiantes de La Plata's 39-year wait for an international title. The Argentine national-teamer captained his club to victory in the final of the 50th edition of the Copa Libertadores -- South America's Champions League -- in highly dramatic circumstances.

After being held to a scoreless draw at home in La Plata, Argentina, last week, Verón pulled the strings as Estudiantes came from behind to defeat Cruzeiro 2-1 in front of 70,000 fans at the intimidating Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Verón played a part in both of his team's goals and was voted best player on the field after another telling demonstration of why he continues to be one of the finest playmakers in the game.

Winning South America's biggest club competition wasn't only a historical achievement for the club, but an objective for Verón since returning to Estudiantes in 2006 after 10 predominantly successful years in the elite leagues of Europe with the likes of Manchester United, Lazio, Inter Milan and Chelsea.

Like former Man. United teammate David Beckham, who joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in an attempt to repair his reputation outside the glitz and glamour of European soccer, Verón pursued his childhood dream of helping his beloved Estudiantes return to the pinnacle of South American soccer.

Unlike most, Verón gave up the opportunity to continue to play at a top European club (along with the big salary) for the sole purpose of helping Estudiantes regain its identity after almost 40 years with nothing to show. "La Brujita" opted for Estudiantes instead of Argentine heavyweights River Plate or Boca Juniors, knowing that such a move was always going to be risky, not only because of the financial state of the club but also the ongoing problems associated with Argentine soccer. He was also well aware that such a move could put his national-team career at risk.

Now 34, Verón had confessed over and over again that before he called it quits, his ultimate goal was to win the Libertadores with Estudiantes. Like his father, Juan Ramón Verón, who was part of the incredible Estudiantes side that won three successive Libertadores titles from 1968-1970, Seba was able to fulfill his lifelong dream.

What Verón has achieved with Estudiantes in these last three years has been nothing short of remarkable -- he has practically rejuvenated the club single-handedly. In his first year back, Verón played a key role as Estudiantes won the Argentine Championship for the first time in 23 years after an unexpected playoff victory over Boca.

Despite attracting plenty of attention from several foreign clubs, including D.C. United -- which was prepared to offer him a salary of more than $3 million a year -- Verón chose to stay loyal to Estudiantes as he set his sights on winning international silverware with the club.

Last year, he guided the team to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, South America's second-tier club competition behind the Libertadores. But Estudiantes was ousted by Brazilian club Internacional. Despite the devastating defeat, Verón ended up being named South American Footballer of the Year for '08 after an impressive campaign that further reinforced his status as a world-class player.

Verón saw the potential in the Estudiantes squad and, even if it seemed that he would be forced to part ways with the club after a serious internal conflict, he decided to stay on and his side was reinforced with heaps of quality additions ahead of the Libertadores.

Estudiantes' title run was simply amazing, and Verón was the main reason for the success. After finishing the group stage in second place behind Cruzeiro, Estudiantes eliminated Libertad of Paraguay and Uruguayan teams Defensor Sporting and Nacional en route to the final.

Los Pincharratas came into the decider against Cruzeiro as the clear underdogs, not only because of the prolific form of the Brazilians, but also because Verón wasn't at full fitness after sustaining a calf injury in the semis. In the first leg of the finals, Verón left the field bruised and battered after a frustrating scoreless draw at home.

The second leg in Brazil seemed to spell more doom and gloom. Estudiantes fell behind to a Henrique thunderbolt early in the second half, and it seemed like Verón's dream was quickly evaporating. But thanks to his steady leadership, the Argentines turned it around with goals from strikers Gastón Fernández and Mauro Boselli. Verón had an exceptional match -- he created both goals, worked tirelessly in the midfield and intercepted several crucial balls to the admiration of the 5,000 traveling Estudiantes supporters.

In rallying in the second half to beat a team that won all six of its home matches in the tournament (including a 3-0 victory against los Pincharratas in the group stage), Verón-led Estudiantes pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Copa Libertadores history. "Verón is the most important player in the entire history of Estudiantes," coach Alejandro Sabella said after Wednesday's victory.

As champions of South America, Verón & Co. gain entry into the FIFA Club World Cup in December, which shifts from Japan to Abu Dhabi this year. With that ticket, a potential championship matchup with European champion Barcelona is a real possibility. Verón has more to look forward to as well, including making Argentina's squad for next year's World Cup in South Africa, which would be his third.

But both landmark events are months away. Today, tomorrow and in the weeks and months to come, Verón will drink in the glory of realizing his childhood dream, making his father proud and cementing his legacy. Thousands of miles from the big leagues of Europe, La Brujita did what he set out to do: He made a difference. Take that, Beckham.

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