Veron's painful cry for beloved country

Manchester United's Argentinian midfielder finds it difficult to focus on his game with his homeland deep in crisis
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The Independent Online

Forget the criticism emanating from certain corners that he is not pulling his weight on the pitch; and forget the persistent rumours linking him with a possible return to Lazio this summer. Juan Sebastian Veron has far more serious matters on his mind.

Safely tucked away in his luxurious home on the outskirts of Manchester, the Premiership's most expensive footballer can only sit and watch as his country tears itself apart. Having kept abreast with events every day for the last three months, Veron is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the images of Argentina's on-going troubles. "It's tough, really tough," says Manchester United's £28.1m signing, after Wednesday's convenient goalless draw at Old Trafford which carried Manchester United and Bayern Munich through to the last eight of the Champions' League.

"We all have family and friends back home and none of us like to see our country in this state. I keep in touch with developments by watching CNN, calling relatives, or even logging on to the Internet. I check on the situation every day, which I guess is only normal when you consider that my loved ones are involved. I'm very worried, and, in many ways, feel quite helpless watching events unfold from over here."

Christmas away from home was a particularly alien and traumatic experience for the player who has looked somewhat out of sorts since problems flared up in his native land. "That was a sad time," Veron says, "but I am a professional and have to carry on. I may be miles away from the troubles, but I still feel part of them. That's why I want to help and I believe we players can do our bit by providing some joy and entertainment to the people."

Foreign as the concept may be to the majority of northern Europeans, football is the single most important binding agent in Argentina's fractured state. This was best illustrated by the fact that, after just one month in office, the new president, Eduardo Duhalde, met leaders of the big-gest clubs. "Football has the ability to bring people together," Veron explains. "It's not just a way to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon, it's a full-time passion."

Following three years of recession, the Argentine is now in the throws of a full-blown economic and moral depression. Unemployment recently hit 22 per cent, while 44 per cent of the population are below the poverty line, thus earning less than the equivalent of £86 per month. The current economic crisis has not spared the beautiful game, with debts of more than £300m threatening to cripple the sport. "Like the country as a whole, clubs are bleeding at the moment," the 27-year old Veron says. "I think that things need to stabilise themselves politically before football can have a genuine chance of sorting its own problems out."

Those problems run deep. Like many of their English counterparts today, Argentinian clubs overstretched themselves in the Eighties and Nineties. The single biggest mistake was promising players huge salaries that were impossible to deliver on a monthly basis. "If the banks are closing down," says one of Argentina's most prominent agents, Gustavo Mascardit, "then it is unlikely that football clubs can survive." The current malaise is not helped by the years of corruption which have come to symbolise the Argentinian game. "The real issue with regards to corruption," Mascardit says, "is that amateurs have been trying to run a professional sport. In the long run, it causes problems with the balance sheet."

River Plate are a case in point. Figures have not added up for a long while, with debts topping £30m, and yet the former chairman of Argentina's premier club seems worryingly untroubled. "We have 600 employees to look after as well as the players, and everything we spend is approved by the committee," David Pintado explains. "Most of the money is invested back into the club. It's not a problem, we don't worry about it. We'll just part with a few players and the debt will be cleared."

River Plate are just one of the clubs that have been forced to sell their best assets, usually to rich European suitors. Only six weeks ago, another Argentinian heavyweight, Independiente, had to offload Diego Forlan to Manchester United. Not that the club made much profit. Independiente received less than half of the £6.75m transfer fee because the player was "sponsored" by a wealthy individual, who had to be compensated.

Veron believes that one solution would be to float the clubs. "They should become listed companies who answer to shareholders," he says. "These types of enterprises have professional managers. The more money that comes into Argentine football from private investment the better. Most people now agree things must change – the key is to have the courage to follow those ideas through."

These days, almost the entire Argentinian national squad ply their trade on this side of the Atlantic. In many cases, individuals are worth more than entire clubs back home. But while he is clearly concerned with events in and around his home city of Buenos Aires, Veron does not believe that it is the players' responsibility to provide financial assistance to needy countrymen. The former Sampdoria and Lazio midfielder feels that there has to be a clear distinction between political and social roles. "They are two separate entities," he says, "and I think that we must be careful not to try to offer sporting answers to political problems. All we must do is concentrate on playing good football in our clubs and, hopefully, getting the results at the World Cup. It's not ideal; it's not the ultimate answer; but it is something."

Corruption and malpractice aside, there is another, even darker, problem facing Argentinian football. Violence in stadiums has risen to such an extent that many fans are turning their backs on the game, fearful that they might be stabbed or even shot. "To eradicate violence like they did in England, France and Spain you need a team effort from the clubs, the police and especially the government," Veron says. "One side cannot change anything, but the government will find it difficult to get involved in the near future because they are too busy trying to save the country from bankruptcy."

As if suddenly aware that he has been painting an overly-negative picture, Veron tries to unearth a glimmer of hope. "Let's face it," he says, "these are not good times for Argentinian football, but I don't think it is necessarily all doom and gloom. Maybe the clubs will have to sell their best players for a while, but so what? Giving youngsters their big break early on in their careers is no bad thing. It certainly didn't do me any harm and, who knows, it might even benefit our national team in the long run." And with that, Veron checks the time, jumps in his car and heads for home. CNN awaits.

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